Why Phil Balboni has turned his attention to local news

Phil Balboni. Photo (cc) 2016 by Sylvia Stagg-Giuliano.

Phil Balboni is a journalistic legend. His latest venture is DailyChatter, a nonpartisan newsletter that covers international news. The newsletter’s staff of experienced journalists based in Europe, Asia and the United States searches for “meaning and context in this immensely complex world.”

Before creating DailyChatter, Balboni was the founder, president and CEO of GlobalPost, the highly acclaimed international news site he launched in 2008. He was also the founder and president of New England Cable News, and was vice president of news and editorial director for WCVB-TV (Channel 5) in Boston. He has been awarded almost every major honor in broadcasting, including the Peabody, Murrow and Emmy.

In our latest “What Works” podcast, Balboni talks with Ellen Clegg and me about his passion for local news as well as his hopes for a newly created professorship at the Columbia School of Journalism that was endowed in his honor.

In Quick Takes, I analyze the danger to the First Amendment posed by a New York court judge who ordered The New York Times to stop publishing confidential documents it had obtained about the notorious right-wing organization Project Veritas.

Ellen weighs in with news from Texas, where a right-wing activist named Frank Lopez Jr. is flooding the zone with disinformation about immigration, taking advantage of the void created when the local newspaper shut down.

You can listen here or on your favorite podcast app.

The Bedford Citizen’s ad-rich annual guide gets a shoutout from Editor & Publisher

Over the past few years, revenues at The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit community website in the Boston suburbs, have ramped up from zero to more than $100,000 a year. The Citizen has done it through voluntary memberships, sponsors, grants, the NewsMatch program and — perhaps most significant — an annual glossy publication called The Bedford Guide.

The Guide is a 64-page magazine that serves as an introduction to the town. It is loaded with ads, and from what I can tell, all of them are local, from life sciences giant Millipore Sigma, which has a facility in Bedford, to the Cat Doctor. According to the Citizen’s executive director, Teri Morrow, the 2022 Guide (the third) which came out in December, will produce about $40,000 in revenues.

Now Gene Kalb, a Citizen board member who’s the main force behind the Guide, has been recognized by the trade magazine Editor & Publisher as one of its “Sales Supernovas.” He told E&P’s Robin Blinder that flexibility is a key to the Guide’s success, explaining:

The pandemic hit us just as we started our second annual Bedford Guide. The initial strategy was to approach retail establishments in town. During 2020 with almost all restaurants and retail establishments closed, we shifted our focus to larger corporate industries in town. Our publication is all about supporting our community, and the corporate neighbors in town stepped up to help us. With the retail landscape improving this year, we had a nice combination of retail and corporate advertisers.

Such revenues have allowed the Citizen to grow from an all-volunteer project to a news organization with paid employees — a managing editor, a part-time reporter and a part-time operations manager — as well as freelance fees for contributors.

Founded in 2012, the Citizen continues to grow in other ways as well. According to Google Analytics, the site had more than a million page views in 2021. Those of us who follow such things know that’s a statistic of limited value, but here’s another that’s rock-solid: about 2,200 people have subscribed to the Citizen’s free daily newsletter in a town with fewer than 5,400 households, for a penetration rate of more than 40%. (Caveat: Email being what it is, no doubt there are a number of families with more than one subscription.)

The Citizen is one of the projects that Ellen Clegg and I are tracking for our “What Works” book project. It’s encouraging to see how people in the community have come together to create a vibrant and sustainable source of local news.

WHAV Radio takes note of the 200th anniversary of The Haverhill Gazette

The Haverhill Gazette in the early 1900s. Photo via WHAV.

The Haverhill Gazette marked its 200th anniversary in 2021, and WHAV Radio has taken note of the occasion in a lengthy tribute. The Gazette, an independently owned daily for most of its existence, launched WHAV in 1947 under the auspices of a publisher who was distantly related to the Taylor family, which then owned The Boston Globe. The station was revived about 15 years ago and converted to a nonprofit, low-power FM station (it also streams) by local advertising executive Tim Coco, who continues to run it as an independent source of news.

Coco and David Goudsward trace the Gazette from its founding in 1821 to the present day. I had no idea that Haverhill’s favorite son, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, was the editor for a brief period in the 1830s.

A long series of events that led to the shrinkage of the Gazette began in 1957, when William Loeb, the notorious right-wing publisher of the Manchester Union Leader (now the New Hampshire Union Leader), took advantage of a strike at the Gazette by starting a competing paper, the Haverhill Journal. Coco and Goudsward write that the Gazette was sold to a consortium comprising The Eagle-Tribune, then of Lawrence, now of North Andover; The Sun of Lowell; and Vermont’s Burlington Free Press.

John Greenleaf Whittier. Image via the National Portrait Gallery.

Although the arrangement somehow managed to pass antitrust muster, I’m old enough to recall stories that The Eagle-Tribune and The Sun weren’t going to let the Gazette get too good. The Gazette changed hands several more times and in 1998 was sold to The Eagle-Tribune. Today, the Gazette is a weekly. Both the Gazette and The Eagle-Tribune, which remains a daily, are owned by CNHI, a corporate newspaper chain based in Montgomery, Alabama. As Coco and Goudsward write of the Gazette:

It is better off than the thousands of newspapers that have succumbed in recent years, but still a shadow of its former self — the victim, first of consolidation that reduced it from a robust daily to a weekly, and then of the loss of its advertising base to electronic media.

For several years, I followed news coverage in Haverhill quite closely, as it was the first community chosen by the Banyan Project in which to launch a cooperatively owned news organization, to be known as Haverhill Matters. The idea never came to fruition despite years of planning. During those same years, Coco was building WHAV into a vital source of local news and information, both over the air and online.

In our latest ‘What Works’ podcast, Damon Kiesow talks about human-centered design

Damon Kiesow

Our latest “What Works” podcast features Damon Kiesow, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where he holds the Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing. But Ellen Clegg and I first met him about 10 years ago when he was at The Boston Globe, developing mobile products for Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com.

At the time, the new Globe.com site had been launched with a paywall, and featured the Globe’s journalism. Although print revenue is still significant, the paywall strategy seems to be paying off now in terms of digital subscriptions. Kiesow and others were working on emerging technologies in mobile and social media. Kiesow focused on human-centered design: how readers interact with a print newspaper versus a digital side. Does some 150 years of experience reading print make a difference? Why is doom scrolling on digital platforms so exhausting? Tune in and find out.

Plus Ellen takes a quick look at a powerful newspaper collaboration in South Carolina that is rooting out scandal after scandal, and I offer an update on the vibrant digital archive of the late, great Boston Phoenix, housed at Northeastern University and now freely available online.

You can listen here or on your favorite podcast app.

From COVID to our crisis of democracy, 2021 turned out to be a scant improvement over 2020

Photo (cc) 2021 by Blink O’fanaye

Previously published at GBH News.

Hopes were running high when we all turned the calendar to 2021. Would the worst 12 months in anyone’s memory give way to the best year of our lives?

Not quite. Yes, it was better than 2020, but 2021 was hardly a return to paradise. The joy of vaccinations gave way to the reality that COVID-19 is likely to be with us for a long time. The economy recovered rapidly — accompanied by the highest rate of inflation in 40 years. Worst of all, the end of the Trump presidency morphed into a crisis of democracy that is starting to look as ominous as the run-up to the Civil War.

During the past year, I’ve been struggling to make sense of the highs, the lows and the in-betweens through the prism of the media. Below are 10 of my GBH News columns from 2021. They’re in chronological order, with updates on many of the pieces posted earlier this year. If there’s a unifying theme, it’s that we’re in real trouble — but that, together, we can get through this.

The end of the Trump bump, Jan. 27. Even as he was denouncing journalists as “enemies of the people,” Donald Trump, both before and during his presidency, was very, very good for the media. Cable TV ratings soared. The New York Times and The Washington Post signed up subscribers by the bucketload. Several weeks after Trump departed from the White House, though, there were questions about what would happen once he was gone. We soon got an answer. Even though Trump never really left, news consumption shrank considerably. That may be good for our mental health. But for media executives trying to make next quarter’s numbers, it was an unpleasant new reality.

Local news in crisis, Feb. 23. The plague of hedge funds undermining community journalism continued unabated in 2021. The worst newspaper owner of them all, Alden Global Capital, acquired Tribune Publishing and its eight major-market papers, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, closer to home, the Hartford Courant. When the bid was first announced, there was at least some hope that one of those papers, The Baltimore Sun, would be spun off. Unfortunately, an epic battle between Alden and Baltimore hotel mogul Stewart Bainum resulted in Alden grabbing all of them. Bainum, meanwhile, is planning to launch a nonprofit website to compete with the Sun that will be called The Baltimore Banner.

The devolution of Tucker Carlson, April 15. How did a stylish magazine writer with a libertarian bent reinvent himself as a white-supremacist Fox News personality in thrall to Trump and catering to dangerous conspiracy theories ranging from vaccines (bad) to the Jan. 6 insurrection (good)? There are millions of possible explanations, and every one of them has a picture of George Washington on it. Carlson got in trouble last spring — or would have gotten in trouble if anyone at Fox cared — when he endorsed “replacement theory,” a toxic trope that liberal elites are deliberately encouraging immigration in order to dilute the power of white voters. A multitude of advertisers have bailed on Carlson, but it doesn’t matter — Fox today makes most of its money from cable fees. And Carlson continues to spew his hate.

How Black Lives Matter exposed journalism, May 26. A teenager named Darnella Frazier exposed an important truth about how reporters cover the police. The video she recorded of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin literally squeezing the life out of George Floyd as he lay on the pavement proved that the police lied in their official report of what led to Floyd’s death. For generations, journalists have relied on law enforcement as their principal — and often only — source for news involving the police. That’s no longer good enough; in fact, it was never good enough. Frazier won a Pulitzer Prize for her courageous truth-telling. And journalists everywhere were confronted with the reality that they need to change the way they do their jobs.

The 24th annual New England Muzzle Awards, July 1. For 24 years, the Muzzle Awards have singled out enemies of free speech. The Fourth of July feature made its debut in The Boston Phoenix in 1998 and has been hosted by GBH News since 2013, the year that the Phoenix shut down. This year’s lead item was about police brutality directed at Black Lives Matter protesters in Boston and Worcester the year before — actions that had escaped scrutiny at the time but that were exposed by bodycam video obtained by The Appeal, a nonprofit news organization. Other winners of this dubious distinction included former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz and the aforementioned Tucker Carlson, who unleashed his mob to terrorize two freelance journalists in Maine.

How to help save local news, July 28. Since 2004, some 2,100 newspapers have closed, leaving around 1,800 communities across the country bereft of coverage. It’s a disaster for democracy, and the situation is only growing worse. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, a bipartisan proposal to provide indirect government assistance in the form of tax credits for subscribers, advertisers and publishers, could help. The bill is hardly perfect. Among other things, it would direct funds to corporate chains as well as to independent operators, thus rewarding owners who are hollowing out their papers. Nevertheless, the idea may well be worth trying. At year’s end, the legislation was in limbo, but it may be revived in early 2022.

Democracy in crisis, Sept. 29. As summer turned to fall, the media began devoting some serious attention to a truly frightening development: the deterioration of the Republican Party into an authoritarian tool of Trump and Trumpism, ready to hand the presidency back to their leader in 2024 through a combination of antidemocratic tactics. These include the disenfranchisement of Black voters through partisan gerrymandering, the passage of new laws aimed at suppressing the vote and the handing of state electoral authority over to Trump loyalists. With polls showing that a majority of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen, it’s only going to get worse in the months ahead.

Exposing Facebook’s depravity, Oct. 27. The social media giant’s role in subverting democracy in the United States and fomenting chaos and violence around the world is by now well understood, so it takes a lot to rise to the level of OMG news. Frances Haugen, though, created a sensation. The former Facebook executive leaked thousands of documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission and spoke out — at first anonymously, in The Wall Street Journal, and later on “60 Minutes” and before a congressional committee. Among other things, the documents showed that Facebook’s leaders were well aware of how much damage the service’s algorithmic amplification of conspiracy theories and hate speech was causing. By year’s end, lawyers for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar were using the documents to sue Facebook for $150 billion, claiming that Mark Zuckerberg and company had whipped up a campaign of rape and murder.

COVID-19 and the new normal, Nov. 17. By late fall, the optimism of June and July had long since given way to the reality of delta. I wrote about my own experience of trying to live as normally as possible — volunteering at Northeastern University’s long-delayed 2020 commencement and taking the train for a reporting trip in New Haven. Now, of course, we are in the midst of omicron. The new variant may prove disastrous, or it may end up being mild enough that it’s just another blip on our seemingly endless pandemic journey. In any case, omicron was a reminder — as if we needed one — that boosters, masking and testing are not going away any time soon.

How journalism is failing us, Dec. 7. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank created a sensation when he reported the results of a content analysis he had commissioned. The numbers showed that coverage of President Joe Biden from August to November 2021 was just as negative, if not more so, than coverage of then-President Trump had been during the same four-month period a year earlier. Though some criticized the study’s methodology, it spoke to a very real problem: Too many elements of the media are continuing to cover Trump and the Republicans as legitimate political actors rather than as what they’ve become: malign forces attempting to subvert democracy. The challenge is to find ways to hold Biden to account while avoiding mindless “both sides” coverage and false equivalence.

A year ago at this time we may have felt a sense of optimism that proved to be at least partly unrealistic. Next year, we’ll have no excuses — we know that COVID-19, the economy and Trumpism will continue to present enormous challenges. I hope that, at the end of 2022, we can all say that we met those challenges successfully.

Finally, my thanks to GBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2022.

Manchin kills Build Back Better, doing what he could have done six months ago

Sen. Joe Manchin. Photo (cc) 2017 by Third Way Think Tank.

Sen. Joe Manchin has finally done what he was obviously planning to do all along — he’s killed the Build Back Better bill. Naturally, he made his announcement during an appearance on Fox News.

This is why I was upset with progressives like Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for holding the infrastructure bill hostage until Build Back Better was passed. To what end? Manchin was never going to vote for BBB, no matter how many programs were cut out of it. At least we got the infrastructure bill anyway. But I hate to be right — BBB would have done an immense amount of good.

The protracted process did enormous damage to President Joe Biden’s political standing. He and his advisers need to think about how they got themselves in a position where they rolled all the dice in a very public way on something that was never going to pass.

It’s time also to think about how individual chunks of BBB might be salvaged. It won’t be easy. But the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, part of which had been folded into BBB, stands out as something that has actual bipartisan support. Let’s get it done.

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Vermont weekly revamps by selling its building and going nonprofit

Covered railroad bridge in Hardwick, Vt. Photo (cc) 2010 by John Rife.

The Hardwick Gazette, a weekly paper that serves several communities in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, is selling its building, going nonprofit and getting rid of its print edition. Volunteer citizen journalists are being recruited as well. Owner and editor Ray Small tells Mary Engisch of Vermont Public Radio:

I think that the key to the survival of the Gazette is it’s not necessarily a new approach — but it’s a new approach for the Gazette and it’s something that we tested several years ago — having the communities in essence cover themselves, partially because of local demand, partially because of looking forward to this day, which has now arrived.

I’m skeptical of the volunteer model, not because it can’t work — it can — but because it can take a long time to build up. But good for Small for coming up with new ideas to keep the Gazette going rather than just walking away.

Arlington’s 15-year-old local news site is expanding and going nonprofit

Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy

YourArlington, a venerable community news site that’s been pretty much a one-man operation throughout its 15 years of existence, is going nonprofit and ramping up. Founder Bob Sprague now has a board, and he’s begun searching for his successor, writing:

I plan to continue to be the chief guardian about what is posted on this site and am very pleased to have more help from those knowledgeable about the town. I am seeking an experienced journalist to take over the day-to-day operation of the site, which had record internet traffic in August and September.

YourArlington will no longer accept advertising but is accepting grants, donations and underwriting from local businesses.

“I have lived in Arlington since 1989, and I know it is a town whose residents crave good journalism,” Sprague told me in an email. “The news YourArlington provides remains free, but the cost to produce it continues. It’s exciting to think that residents will step up and support it.”

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Antitrust legal actions against Google and Facebook spread to 200-plus newspapers

Some 200 newspapers are engaged in legal actions claiming that Google and Facebook exercise Godzilla-like dominance of digital advertising. Photo (cc) 2009 by Dr Zito.

A lawsuit filed by newspapers against Google and Facebook that claims the two tech giants violated antitrust laws is gaining momentum. Sara Fischer and Kristal Dixon of Axios report that more than 200 papers across the country have joined the effort, which is aimed at forcing Google and Facebook to compensate them for what they say are monopolistic practices that denied them advertising revenue.

I don’t see any New England newspapers on this list. But the papers that are involved in the lawsuits in some way represent about 30 different owners in dozens of states, according to Fischer and Dixon. About 150 papers owned by 17 different groups have actually filed suit so far.

What’s interesting about this is that it has nothing to do with the usual complaint about Google and Facebook — that they repurpose journalism from newspapers, and that the newspapers ought to be compensated. By contrast, the current lawsuits are aimed at practices that the plaintiffs claim are clearly illegal.

The Axios story doesn’t get into the weeds. But I did earlier this year shortly after the first lawsuit was filed by HD Media, a small chain based in West Virginia. Essentially, the argument is twofold:

  • Google is violating antitrust law by controlling every aspect of digital advertising. Paul Farrell, a lawyer for HD Media, put it this way in an interview with the trade magazine Editor & Publisher: “They have completely monetized and commercialized their search engine, and what they’ve also done is create an advertising marketplace in which they represent and profit from the buyers and the sellers, while also owning the exchange.”
  • Facebook is complicit because, according to a lawsuit filed by several state attorneys general, Google and Facebook are colluding through an agreement that Google has code-named Jedi Blue. The AGs contend that Google provides Facebook with special considerations so that Facebook won’t set up a competing ad network.

The two companies have denied any wrongdoing. But if the case against them is correct, then Google is profiting from a perfect closed environment: It holds a near-monopoly on search and the programmatic advertising system through which most ads show up on news websites. And it has an agreement with Facebook aimed at staving off competition.

“The intellectual framework for this developed over the last three to four years,”  Doug Reynolds, managing partner of HD Media, told Axios.

The lawsuit also comes at a time when the federal government is beginning to rethink antitrust law. A generation ago, a philosophy developed by Robert Bork — yes, that Robert Bork, and yes, everything really does go back to Richard Nixon — held that there can be no antitrust violations unless consumers are harmed in the form of higher prices.

President Joe Biden’s administration, by contrast, has been embracing a more progressive, older form of antitrust law holding that monopolies can be punished or even broken up if they “undermine economic fairness and American democracy,” as The New Yorker put it.

The newspapers’ lawsuit against Google and Facebook is grounded in the Biden version of antitrust — Google and Facebook are charged with leveraging their monopoly to harm newspapers economically while at the same time hurting democracy, which depends on reliable journalism.

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Ex-paperboys sue Gannett and two of its newspapers over claims of sexual abuse

Photo (cc) 2008 by Thomas Belknap

A former paperboy for the Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, New York, is suing the paper and its corporate owner, Gannett, over sexual abuse he says that he suffered at the hands of a manager back when he was just 11 and 12 years old. Mariya Manzhos has the story at Poynter Online.

The plaintiff, Rick Bates, who’s now 50, says that the company failed to protect him from circulation director Jack Lazeroff and that it acted negligently by hiring him despite previous allegations against him at another job. Lazeroff died in 2003. Manzhos writes that Gannett

is facing lawsuits filed by 11 former paperboys who have accused employees of Gannett-owned newspapers of sexually abusing them on the job in the 1970s and 1980s. [The other paper is the Arizona Republic.]

Nine of the former paperboys filed complaints between 2019 and 2021 against Gannett’s D&C under … a New York law that extended the statute of limitations for survivors of sexual assault, enabling them to file criminal charges against their abusers during a two-year lookback window.

Manzhos describes a culture in which newspaper executives at first attempted to cover up and delay but then published stories that were important to Bates’ ability to advance his case.

She quotes James Marsh, a lawyer for eight of the former paperboys, as saying, “It really was as a result of the journalism that we have so much corollary evidence. We almost never have the quotes, the sources and people that become manifest in our complaints.”

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