How The Denver Post stood up to McCarthy and exposed the limits of mindless balance

The Denver Post’s former downtown headquarters looms over the Colorado Statehouse. The Post itself now operates out of its printing plant in the suburbs. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

The McCarthy era is often cited as a time when the limits of journalistic objectivity were exposed for all to see. For years, the press reported Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s false claims that he had a list of communists in a straight-up, deadpan manner, reasoning that it was their job to inform the country of what a United States senator was saying, not to offer any judgments.

But that’s not what Walter Lippmann had in mind when he first defined objective reporting a century ago. As he conceived it, objectivity was not acting as a conveyor belt for the lies of the powerful; nor was it mindless balance. Rather, it was an objective, fair-minded pursuit of the truth. Once you had determined the truth to the best of your ability, your job was to report it.

“We tell people in a forthright and unflinching way what we have learned because we’ve done the reporting,” retired Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron said at a virtual appearance at Northeastern earlier this year. Baron defined objectivity as  “independence and open-mindedness and a posture of listening and learning.”

Recently I read a book as part of my research into local news that is about as obscure as you can imagine: “Thunder in the Rockies: The Incredible Denver Post,” written by Post staffer Bill Hosokawa and published in 1976. And I was struck by how courageously the Post stood up to McCarthy — especially since, in previous decades, the Post had been mired in corruption and racism.

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By the time McCarthy came along, the Post’s editor was a stand-up guy named Palmer Hoyt, who was unflinching in his insistence on holding the Wisconsin senator to account. In a memo to his staff, he defined true objectivity in such a compelling way that it ought to be taught to every reporter. I’m not going to quote the entire memo, but here’s a key excerpt:

It is obvious that many charges made by reckless impulsive officials cannot and should not be ignored, but it seems to me that news stories and headlines can be presented in such a manner that the reading public will be able to measure the real worth or value and the true meaning of the stories.

For example, when it is possible and practical, we should remind the public in case of a wild accusation by Senator McCarthy that this particular senator’s name is synonymous with poor documentation and irresponsible conduct and that he has made many charges that have been insupportable under due process.

In 1954, Hoyt received the John Peter Zenger Freedom of the Press Award. In his acceptance speech, Hoyt continued to speak boldly, turning media critic: “It is true that the number of newspapers critical of McCarthy has grown during the last year or two. But there are still many of them who are his supporters, his apologists, even his devotees.” And he singled out the Chicago Tribune and the Hearst papers as particularly egregious offenders.

It hardly needs to be said that we are facing a crisis of democracy today — perhaps the most serious since the Civil War, as Robert Kagan recently wrote in The Washington Post (free link). The brainless objectivity of the 1950s has morphed into something else. As Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School has written, Donald Trump received an enormous assist from the press in 2016 by portraying his grotesque behavior and corruption as being equal to Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings — you know, her emails.

Today, Trump and his supporters, who seek to destroy the integrity of our elections in order to pave the way for an illegitimate second Trump term, are getting plenty of harsh coverage, as they should. But to absorb this through the media is to see it balanced against the Democrats’ struggles over its infrastructure bills and chaos at the border. It’s all both sides and false equivalence.

As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has said over and over again, the press is not equipped to cover a reality in which one of our two major political parties remains its normal self and the other has lurched into authoritarianism. You can see it in the headlines this week describing the debt-limit crisis as something the Democrats are struggling to solve — as if it’s a given that the Republicans have descended into madness and therefore can’t be blamed.

We are living through an incredibly ugly time. At the very least, we should remember what Palmer Hoyt said about the media’s obligation to tell the truth.

Legendary North Shore newspaper publisher Bill Wasserman dies at 94

Bill Wasserman. Photo by Jim Walsh. Used by permission.

Legendary North Shore publisher Bill Wasserman has died at the age of 94. The founder of the Ipswich Chronicle, which he built into a group of about a dozen papers comprising North Shore Weeklies, Wasserman sold in 1986 and later became an outspoken critic of corporate chain ownership.

Several years ago, GateHouse Media — now Gannett — folded the Chronicle and merged it into a paper called the Chronicle & Transcript, which covers six North Shore Communities. Wasserman did something about it, becoming a consultant and ad salesman at a nonprofit startup, Ipswich Local News, which appears to be going strong.

Starting in the early 1990s, Wasserman’s former papers became part of larger groups — first Community Newspaper Co., owned by Fidelity and later then-Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell, and then GateHouse. Wasserman lamented the cuts that were implemented at his old papers. In 2008 I wrote about GateHouse for CommonWealth Magazine; Wasserman was among those I interviewed. An excerpt:

After 20 years of consolidation, it’s fair to ask if corporate ownership of community newspapers makes sense — not just journalistically, but financially. Take Bill Wasserman, who built North Shore Weeklies and sold the group in 1986 to investors who, in turn, sold to Fidelity several years later. Wasserman says the main problem with corporate ownership is a failure to understand that, even in the best of times, community journalism is little more than a break-even proposition.

“I was paid a salary, which was modest,” says Wasserman. “The reward was not in the profit. The reward was having a lot of fun putting out a community paper.”

Earlier this year Wasserman was honored by the Ipswich Rotary Club. Even in his 90s, he was looking to the future, saying:

The Ipswich Local News, which is surviving despite all the reports of failing local newspapers, is doing well because of its small but dedicated staff led so ably by John Muldoon — a Rotarian — and the broad support of both the local business community and the residents. It is a joy to be part of this effort to keep local news and its watchdog component alive.”

Wasserman retired from the paper a little more than a year ago, saying, “I will be 93 in two weeks, and I would like to pay more attention to my family and sleep without a deadline. There’s enough news and concerns in our town to keep busy 24 hours 7 days a week.”

I last saw Wasserman several years ago. He looked well and was as sharp as ever. His passion for community journalism was undimished. It’s fitting that toward the end of his life he came full circle — helping to found a newspaper in Ipswich to take the place of a once-thriving paper shut down by a corporation for whom the bottom line is always the bottom line.

In Chicago, public radio steps up to fill the gap created by hedge-fund ownership

It looks like Chicago’s number-two newspaper is about to get a huge boost. Given that the dominant daily, the Chicago Tribune, is being gutted by its new hedge-fund owner, the move can’t come soon enough.

According to media writer Rob Feder, the Chicago Sun-Times and public radio station WBEZ are seeking to merge their operations. The Sun-Times, a tabloid that bills itself as “The Hardest-Working Paper in America,” has long labored in the shadow of the Tribune. But with the Tribune now controlled by Alden Global Capital, the Sun-Times/WBEZ combination could quickly emerge as the news source of record in our third-largest city.

Sun-Times reporter Jon Seidel writes that the newspaper would become a subsidiary of Chicago Public Media. What’s unclear — and maybe those taking part in the talks haven’t figured it out themselves yet — is whether the Sun-Times would become a nonprofit or if it would remain a for-profit entity owned by a nonprofit. It matters for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that nonprofits are not allowed to endorse political candidates.

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I couldn’t immediately find any numbers on how big the two entities’ reporting staffs are. But it’s significant that there would reportedly be no job reductions if the two operations are combined. WBEZ is one of public radio’s powerhouses, and the Sun-Times has maintained decent paid circulation — nearly 107,000 on Sundays and almost 100,000 on weekdays, most of it print, according to numbers it filed with the Alliance for Audited Media a year and a half ago. (The Tribune clocked in at 527,000 on Sundays and 256,000 on weekdays.)

According to a news release quoted by the Sun-Times, the combined outlet “would invest in journalism through expanded capacity to better serve Chicago; expand and engage with diverse audiences throughout the region, and expand digital capabilities to deliver a compelling digital experience across platforms and reach audiences where they are.”

Public radio can play a vitally important role in keeping regional news coverage alive in markets where legacy newspapers are shrinking. In Denver, for instance, Colorado Public Radio, combined with Denverite, which it acquired several years ago, now has what is likely the largest newsroom in the state — about 65 staff members, according to executive editor Kevin Dale. The Denver Post, cut drastically under Alden ownership, employs about 60 journalists, and The Colorado Sun, a well-regarded digital start-up, has 22, according to editor Larry Ryckman.

In Boston, public radio stations WBUR and GBH have probably the most robust news operations in the region after The Boston Globe. Unlike the Tribune, the Globe is independently owned and growing. But if that were to change, the public radio stations would be well-positioned to fill in the gap.

The WBEZ/Sun-Times announcement is the best journalism news to come out of Chicago since Alden acquired the Tribune earlier this year. Let’s hope it becomes a model for what might take place elsewhere.

On the ground during a raucous student protest with The Colorado Sun

Colorado Sun education reporter Erica Breunlin

One of the best things about visiting local news organizations is getting a chance to accompany reporters on stories. I still look back fondly on my trips to New Haven about a dozen years ago, when I shadowed the staff of the New Haven Independent. And then there was the unforgettable experience of covering the first news conference on COVID-19 in Mendocino County, California, on March 5, 2020, while I was reporting on The Mendocino Voice.

I was in Denver last week learning about The Colorado Sun, an online-only project founded three years ago by a group of journalists who left The Denver Post after multiple rounds of cuts by its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital. And on Monday, I struck gold.

I was sitting in on the morning news meeting when we learned that students had staged a walkout at Denver North High School to call for the removal of school board member Tay Anderson, who was censured last week for inappropriate interactions with an underage student. (Anderson has said he cut off all contact as soon as he learned she was 16.) I took a Lyft to Denver North, where hundreds of students had gathered in Denver Park.

Already on the scene were two young journalists — the Sun’s education reporter, Erica Breunlin, and photographer Olivia Sun (“no nepotism involved,” she quipped), who began a stint at the Sun through the Report for America program several months ago.

It was a wild scene. Students were chanting “Hey hey, ho ho! Tay Anderson has got to go!” And “Resign!” After gathering on the steps of the school, they headed off for Denver Public Schools headquarters, some two and a half miles away. The chants grew more profane, with “Fuck That Pedo” proving to be the most popular.

Breunlin and Sun, meanwhile, were hard at work. Breunlin had made the mistake of wearing red pumps, but that didn’t stop her from interviewing students and then running to keep up with the crowd. At one point she asked a student, “Do you feel unsafe?” “Yes.” “Why do you feel unsafe?” Pause. “It’s not right.”

Report for America photographer Olivia Sun

Breunlin was careful to point out to the students that the evidence against Anderson was ambiguous, but that didn’t stop them from demanding action. At one point, the students started chanting “Lock him up!”

I knew Breunlin was tweeting. But while I was scanning my phone outside the DPS building, I was surprised to see that the Sun had posted a full story. When had she written that? She later explained to me that it was pieced together by her editor, Lance Benzel, from her tweets and from phone calls.

“He was great, because he was telling me to really just focus on the scenery and talking to people and tweeting and really capturing that color,” she told me later. “And then he was embedding my tweets into the story, pulling information from my tweets to put in the story, so it was like I was doing the reporting. He was kind of finessing the story, so it really was a good team effort.”

Sun told me she had sought a position through Report for America, which places young journalists with newsrooms across the country, because she was burning out on her job as a photographer with the Des Moines Register.

“The institutional knowledge I gained from working somewhere like that [the Register] is really irreplaceable,” she said. “I really got to learn from old guard veteran journalists. But essentially I wanted to see what else was out there and how I could personally put my skills to a more streamlined use in just illustrating local issues.”

Ironically, both Breunlin and Sun said that what had attracted them to the Sun was the chance to work on in-depth stories rather than breaking news — and here they were, covering a breaking story. But that’s not typical of what they, or the Sun, do.

Finally, here is their story. It was updated later in the day, so it isn’t quite as urgent as the first version. But you’ll get the idea. Nor was theirs the only strong account. I thought The Denver Post, in conjunction with Chalkbeat, did a nice job as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, as always: Local doesn’t scale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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David Joyner leaves as executive editor the North of Boston newspapers

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

Good morning,

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

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

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

My best to all of you,

David

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

How events help local news organizations connect with their audience

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table sign with QR code

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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