Steve Waldman talks about Report for America and his quest to save local news

Steve Waldman

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Steve Waldman, the president and co-founder of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on undercovered communities. Steve came up with the concept in 2014 and joined forces with The Ground Truth Project to launch RFA in 2017.

In the projects we’re reporting on for this podcast and for our book, “What Works: The Future of Local News,” we’ve run across a number of RFA corps members. They usually have a couple of years of experience but are relatively new to the business, although there are a few near retirement age, too.

Steve has a deep background in magazine journalism. He was national editor of U.S. News & World Report and a national correspondent for Newsweek. He went on to co-found a multifaith religion website, Beliefnet.com, which won a National Magazine Award. He is also founder and coordinator of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, and he’s crafted some interesting proposals for how government can help revitalize local journalism while preserving editorial independence.

I’ve got a Quick Take on the happy conclusion to a bizarre situation involving a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Last fall, Josh Renaud reported that a flaw in a database maintained by the state of Missouri allowed for public access to thousands of Social Security numbers. Incredibly, the state’s governor, Mike Parson, denounced Renaud as a “hacker” and a criminal investigation was begun. It was absolutely outrageous, and now Renaud has been recognized with a national freedom-of-the-press award.

And Ellen takes it all back about Ogden Newspapers, which purchased The Aspen Times late last year but has supressed coverage and prompted a number of staff resignations.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Texas newspaper publisher John Garrett tells us why ‘Print Ain’t Dead’

John Garrett

On this week’s edition of the “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with John Garrett, who, along with his wife, Jennifer, started the monthly Community Impact Newspaper in 2005 in Texas. They had three full-time employees and covered two towns in Texas, Round Rock and Pflugerville.

Community Impact expanded into Arizona and Tennessee, and by 2018, Forbes reported, the Garretts had 220 employees and annual revenue of $27 million. They have an online presence, of course, but they also believe in print: their newspapers are distributed by mail every month. They even opened their own printing plant to handle their newspaper and other jobs and have a sign out front that says: “Print Ain’t Dead.”

But as we prepared for this podcast, John told us they’ve just made some tough decisions. They sold their Phoenix operations and closed their small Nashville outlet. They’ve decided to focus on Texas, where their business is doing well, and they have fresh plans for the future there.

Ellen and I devote the entire Quick Takes segment of the podcast to the New England Muzzle Awards, a Fourth of July roundup of outrages against freedom of speech and of the press in the six New England states. The awards were conceived of by my friend and occasional collaborator Harvey Silverglate, the noted Boston civil-liberties lawyer. For many years, they were published by the late, lamented Boston Phoenix. They’ve been hosted by GBH News since 2013, and this year marks their 25th anniversary.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Mike Deehan of Axios Boston talks about the debut of the mobile-first Axios Boston

Mike Deehan

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Mike Deehan, a savvy Boston journalist who is part of the new Axios Boston newsletter. Mike’s colleague at Axios Boston, Steph Solis, was scheduled to join the discussion but was out reporting on reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Deehan and Solis have been reporting on Massachusetts news and politics for a number of years. Mike was formerly digital content editor for State House News Service, editor of Massterlist, and worked for the Dorchester Reporter. Steph worked for Masslive and was an immigration reporter for the USA Today Network. The Axios Boston debut was newsy and a perfect smart-phone scroll for subway reading, whether the MBTA is running or not.

Steph Solis

I’ve got a Quick Take on the soaring cost of newsprint. Print is still important to the bottom line at most newspapers, and this turns out to be one more blow to local news. Ellen looks at a new rural news network being set up through the Institute of Nonprofit News.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Bedford Citizen co-founder Julie Turner to retire as editor, move to new role

Julie Turner at work at the 2021 Bedford Town Day. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

Huge news in the world of hyperlocal journalism: Julie McCay Turner, the managing editor of The Bedford Citizen, is retiring. Turner is one of three co-founders who launched the nonprofit digital news project in 2012.

In recent years the Citizen has ramped up its fundraising, and what was once a volunteer project is now what you might call pro/am, with paid and unpaid contributions. The board is in a position to be able to hire a replacement, which was not the case a few years ago. “As I step away from my position as managing editor, I’m humbled and grateful to have been part of the Citizen’s first decade,” she writes. “It’s been an amazing run, and I look forward to helping to set a course for the second decade.”

The Citizen is one of the projects that Ellen Clegg and I are tracking for our book project, “What Works: The Future of Local News,” and I’ve had the privilege of spending time with Turner and other Citizen folks during the past year. They are a model for what a community can do in the face of downsizing chain journalism. Indeed, Gannett’s Bedford Minuteman was closed earlier this year, which means the Citizen is the only news source in town.

Congratulations, good luck and best wishes to Julie, who will stay until a successor is named and then move into a new, as yet undefined role. Last December she told me she was still working well over 40 hours a week at an age when most people are retired. I hope she’s got something fun planned.

Food journalism as regional news: Our conversation with Hanna Raskin

Hanna Raskin, allegedly. Photo by Allisyn K. Morgan.

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Hanna Raskin, founder and editor of The Food Section, a Substack newsletter devoted to covering restaurants and trends in food across the South. Before starting her Substack last year, Hanna was food editor and critic for eight years at the family-owned Charleston Post and Courier in South Carolina.

Raskin also covered food for alternative weeklies, including the Mountain XPress in Asheville, North Carolina, and Seattle Weekly.

I offer a Quick Take on The Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit news project that finally made its long-awaited debut. I wish them all good luck but have some issues with their business model, which includes a hard paywall — not entirely compatible with a nonprofit’s public-service mission.

Ellen’s Quick Take is on a Pew Research Center study on trends in digital circulation at locally focused publications. The bottom line: digital is trending up, print circulation continues to tank, and readers are spending less time on site.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

The Globe’s Rhode Island initiative may be expanded across New England

The Boston Globe’s Rhode Island section could be a model for other verticals devoted to different regions in New England. That’s the main takeaway from this week’s edition of “E&P Reports,” a vodcast produced by the trade publication Editor & Publisher.

The vodcast, hosted by E&P publisher Mike Blinder, featured the Globe’s Rhode Island editor (and my “Beat the Press” crony), Lylah Alphonse; Rhode Island reporter Dan McGowan; and Michelle Micone, the Globe’s vice president for innovation and strategic initiatives.

It was Micone who talked about expanding the Globe’s coverage to other regions. She specifically mentioned New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont but not Connecticut, which was either inadvertent or, more likely, a nod to the Nutmeg State’s very different media and cultural environment. I mean, my God, they root for the Yankees down there.

Alphonse and McGowan were careful not to criticize The Providence Journal, but let’s face it — the Globe’s Rhode Island project was begun in response to Gannett’s evisceration of that once great paper. Blinder said that the Journal’s full-time staff is down to about 14. [Note: The actual number is about 30.] Alphonse told me that Globe Rhode Island now has eight full-time journalists. Of course, the folks who remain at the Journal are doing good work under trying conditions, and Alphonse and McGowan were smart to acknowledge that.

One statistic that really hit me was that McGowan’s daily newsletter, “Rhode Map,” is sent to 80,000 recipients each morning, with an open rate of about 30%. By contrast, the Journal’s combined paid print and digital circulation on weekdays, according to data the paper filed with the Alliance for Audited Media, is a little under 31,000. (About 24,000 of that is print, showing that Gannett’s push on digital subscriptions has a long way to go.)

I also want to highlight the news that staff reporter Alexa Gagosz, one of our great master’s degree alums at Northeastern, is heading up expanded food and dining coverage in Rhode Island, including a weekly newsletter.

Now, to get back to possible expansion in other regions: Rhode Island was an opportunity that may not be entirely replicable elsewhere, thanks not only to the ProJo’s shrinkage but to the state’s unique identity. The state has a range of media options, including good-quality public radio, television newscasts and independent community news outlets. But the ProJo’s decline gave the Globe a chance to slide in and quickly establish itself as one of the players.

Where else does opportunity that exist? Worcester and Central Massachusetts strike me as in serious need of more journalism. The Globe memorably walked away from the region when then-new owner John Henry sold the Telegram & Gazette to a Florida-based chain after leading the staff to believe he was committed to selling to local interests. Soon enough, the T&G became part of Gannett, and it was subjected to the same devastating cuts that the chain has imposed throughout the country. The T&G carried on but is currently in flux, having lost its respected executive editor, Dave Nordman, to Northeastern, where he’s heading up the internal news operation. Could the Henrys return to Worcester? I’ve heard that might be within the range of possibilities.

But where else? New Hampshire and Maine both have good-quality independent newspapers, though New Hampshire’s two leading papers — the Union Leader and the Concord Monitor — have shrunk quite a bit. Vermont is unique, dominated by one of the most respected nonprofit news organizations in the country, VTDigger.

Then there’s the distribution model, which, if they were asking me (they’re not), is too reliant on print. Quite a bit of the Globe’s Rhode Island coverage appears in the Globe’s print edition. But rather than take on the cost of trucking more papers to Rhode Island, why not use digital to expand your reach and drive more digital subscriptions? What the Globe is doing with Rhode Island and print simply wouldn’t work if the paper established bureaus in Central Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.

The Globe is one of the few major metropolitan dailies in the country that is growing. What it’s doing in Rhode Island is impressive, and I’d love to see it happen elsewhere.

Correction: After this item was published, I learned that the Journal’s full-time newsroom staff is actually around 30 people, supplemented by freelancers.

Meredith Clark on race, power and why the media have fallen short on diversity

Meredith Clark. Photo by Alyssa Stone / Northeastern University

On the brand new “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Professor Meredith Clark, our colleague at Northeastern University. Dr. Clark is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern as well as founding director of the university’s new Center for Communication, Media Innovation and Social Change.

Before arriving at Northeastern, she was a faculty fellow at Data & Society, an independent nonprofit research organization based in New York that examines some of the questions being raised by the massive increase in the use of data in all aspects of society.

Dr. Clark’s research is on the intersections of race, media and power, and she’s studied everything from newsroom hiring and reporting practices to social media communities. Her media diet is wide-ranging and eclectic. Our interview touches on many cultural icons, including poet Audre Lorde and Captain Olivia Benson, the fictional “Law & Order SVU” crime-solver.

Meredith is perhaps best known in news circles for her work in trying to revive an annual diversity census conducted by the News Leaders Association, an effort that fell short earlier this year after just 303 media outlets responded out of the 2,500 that were asked to provide data. Ellen and I asked Meredith why so few were willing to participate — and what can be done to encourage diversity at small start-up news organizations.

In Quick Takes, I discuss Gannett’s recent move to dismantle some of the chain’s regional editorial pages, which I see as not entirely a negative, and Ellen tips the hat to two of the 2022 recipients of the prestigious Freedom of the Press Award: Wendi C. Thomas, founding editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, and Mukhtar Ibrahim, founding publisher and CEO of Sahan Journal.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Colorado media activists save Aurora’s weekly newspaper

Photo (cc) 2012 by Ken Lund

Media activists in Colorado have stepped up once again to save a newspaper from either closing or falling into the clutches of corporate chain ownership. Colorado media watcher Corey Hutchins, a journalism professor at Colorado College, reports that Sentinel Colorado, a free weekly with a daily website in Aurora, will be acquired by a temporary holding company.

It’s a complicated transaction that involves some of the same players that pulled off the purchase of Colorado Community Media’s weekly and monthly newspapers last year. CCM is now being managed by The Colorado Sun, a digital start-up in Denver that was given an ownership stake.

Aurora, Colorado’s third-largest city, has a population of about 380,000 and is approximately a dozen miles east of Denver.

As with the CCM transaction, the Colorado News Collaborative has helped with the Aurora deal, although the Sun is not involved this time around. Laura Frank, the collaborative’s executive director, was quoted by The Sentinel as saying:

Journalism leaders and community members in Colorado are finding ways to change the narrative and the trajectory of failing news outlets. Together, we are making journalism stronger, which makes democracy stronger. I’m thrilled COLab can help support that work.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit Corporation for New Jersey Local Media acquired 14 weekly newspapers serving about 50 cities and towns. The papers will be run as a public benefit corporation — a for-profit arrangement that is geared toward serving the public rather than rewarding its owners.

That’s also the business model for the Sun and CCM, and it’s been emerging at news organizations across the country as a third-way alternative to traditional for-profit ownership and nonprofit status.

Boston Globe Media is hiring for a morning newsletter to be called Boston Local

Earlier today, in an item about the debut of Axios Boston, I expressed some puzzlement that The Boston Globe doesn’t have a morning newsletter. It sounds like that’s about to change.

A sharp-eyed reader sent me a link to this job ad for a lead writer for a newsletter to be called Boston Local. It sounds like a fairly ambitious endeavor that will encompass not just the Globe but its sister Boston Globe Media properties as well — Boston.com and Stat, which covers health and life sciences.

Boston Local, according to the ad, will publish seven days a week and will include “Big Stories, curated Community News, Event Spotlights, Weekend Guides, and additional rotating featurettes.” The newsletter will also have its own social channels and live events.

No word on when Boston Local will debut.

Update: Sarah Betancourt of GBH News snagged this a few weeks ago. I even hit the like button at the time, but then I promptly forgot about it.

Axios Boston enters the crowded local newsletter fray with a solid debut

The Axios Boston newsletter made a solid debut today with the help of Gov. Charlie Baker, who sat down with Mike Deehan for an interview about his priorities during the final weeks of the legislative session.

Steph Solis has an update on the override of Baker’s veto of a bill that would grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Also online are the controversy over our racist state flag, the state of tourism, a decline in college enrollments and, from Maxwell Millington, guides to drinking (always welcome) and AirBNBs. In addition, there are sponsored-content ads from CEO Action for Racial Equity and from Axios itself. The newsletter is free.

I’m sure we’ll see more variety in the days ahead. For one thing, there’s no round-up of news items from other media outlets, which is a standard feature at (for example) Axios Denver. Overall, though, it was substantive and entertaining, with lots of Axios’ patented indents and bullet points, intended to — well, I’m actually not sure what they’re intended to do.

Axios invited mockery last year when, in announcing that it would expand its Axios Local network, published a story headlined “Axios vows to save local news.” (I wrote about it for GBH News.) Axios Boston isn’t going to do that. But it’s a good subway read — it’s designed for mobile — and may connect with younger professionals who aren’t currently tuned in to local coverage of any kind.

Axios Boston is elbowing its way into a pretty crowded newsletter environment in Greater Boston. Other general-interest morning offerings include “The Wake Up,” from GBH News; “WBUR Today,” from you-know-who; and “BosToday,” from 6AM Cities. Political newsletters include “Massachusetts Playbook,” from Politico; “Masster List,” from State House News Service; and “The Daily Download,” from CommonWealth Magazine.

Oddly, The Boston Globe doesn’t have a human-generated morning newsletter despite a pretty wide array covering everything from the day’s headlines to baseball. The Boston Herald offers Morning Memo.

A programming note: Ellen Clegg and I have scheduled Deehan and Solis for an upcoming episode of our “What Works” podcast. Listen for it!