The Boston Globe’s storytelling event reinforces community ties

The other day I was talking with a colleague about how our news-consumption habits had changed during the early months of the Trump presidency. The endless torrent of shocking developments from Washington had tied both of us to The Washington Post and The New York Times from the moment we got up and through much of the day. Local news, by comparison, had faded into the background.

Yet it’s local news that is essential to the civic glue that binds us together. Ultimately none of us as individuals can do much about what’s taking place nationally. We live in communities, and it’s at that level where each of us can have an effect, for better or for worse.

Last Friday evening The Boston Globe provided a vibrant reminder of that, packaging its local journalism not in print or on the web but, rather, through two and a half hours of live storytelling. Dubbed Globe Live, the event — held before nearly 600 people at the Emerson Paramount Center — featured nonfiction monologues, video, photography, music, and even some comedy.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Breitbart’s gushy Trump book presents ‘alternative facts’ on the first 100 days

WGBH News photo illustration by Emily Judem

If you are a stereotypical Massachusetts liberal (I plead guilty, your honor), the story of President Trump’s first few months in office is one of incompetence, corruption, and cruelty, all playing out beneath the penumbra of the burgeoning Russia scandal.

But that’s not how it looks to Breitbart News, the right-wing nationalist website that has served as Trump’s most outspoken — and outrageous — media cheerleader. In a new e-book titled “The First 100 Days of Trump,” Breitbart’s Joel Pollak describes the president in glowing terms.

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GateHouse, Digital First union employees to stage ‘day of action’ over contract talks

Union employees at newspapers owned by Digital First Media and GateHouse Media will celebrate World Press Freedom Day by “a joint day of action … as part of a national campaign to protest the corporate-led assault on quality journalism.” A statement from the NewsGuild (below) charges that Digital First and GateHouse are responsible for “draconian cuts in their newsrooms and other departments.”

GateHouse owns more than 100 weekly and daily newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Among the union papers taking part in the action are the Providence Journal, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, The Herald News of Fall River, The Enterprise of Brockton and The Patriot Ledger of Quincy.

None of Digital First’s Massachusetts papers is listed as taking part, but the company owns The Sun of Lowell, the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg and several smaller publications.

“Workers at GateHouse and Digital First Media have endured some of the most vicious staff reductions in the news business,” according to the union statement. The “day of action” — which “will include the display of pro-journalism literature at desks and other work stations, and appeals for public support in local communities and online” — is timed to coincide with contract negotiations. The full statement follows.

GUILD WORKERS AT DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA AND GATEHOUSE MEDIA STAND TOGETHER AGAINST PROFITEERING OWNERS ON WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY MAY 3

WASHINGTON, D.C. (April 28, 2017) — A broad coalition of 1,500 unionized news workers will conduct a joint day of action on May 3 — World Press Freedom Day — as part of a national campaign to protest the corporate-led assault on quality journalism.

The coordinated effort by NewsGuild members will span 29 newspapers owned by GateHouse Media and Digital First Media.  It will support the fight for quality journalism at those papers and highlight the damage wrought by draconian cuts in their newsrooms and other departments.

Now, union leaders say the focus on profits threatens journalism at a critical time of politicized attacks on the news media.

“Reliable information is the foundation of our democracy,” said Bernie Lunzer, president of The NewsGuild-CWA, based in Washington, D.C. “Corporate owners have a duty to invest in the essential work done by newspaper workers and not to simply strip-mine newspapers for profits.”

The joint effort by GateHouse and Digital First Media workers marks an unprecedented NewsGuild campaign to demand that corporate owners invest in quality jobs and fair contracts after years of layoffs, furloughs, pay freezes and benefit cuts. Contract negotiations are under way or expected to resume soon at both companies, but managements have shown little interest in changing course.

Workers at GateHouse and Digital First Media have endured some of the most vicious staff reductions in the news business.

Alden Global Capital, a secretive New York hedge fund, owns DFM and has slashed staffing levels by more than twice the national average during the past five years, while pocketing millions by selling off the company’s real estate assets.

GateHouse owns and/or manages 564 community print publications, including more than 130 daily newspapers, under the New Media Investment Group umbrella. New Media is a publicly traded company, externally managed by Fortress Investment Group.

Under New Media’s business model, the company buys newspapers, strips them down to maximize cash flow, and uses that money to pay dividends, pay bonuses to corporate officers and fund more acquisitions.

As the company gets bigger, Fortress collects larger management fees — roughly $54 million the previous two years alone.

The 13 Digital First bargaining units represent workers at 12 newspapers, including the Denver Post, San Jose Mercury News, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and suburban publications in the Bay Area, Philadelphia, and Detroit markets. Last week, DFM announced that it would lay off more than 20 percent of the Guild-covered newsroom staff at the East Bay Times, just one week after it was awarded journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize, for breaking news coverage of the deadly “Ghost Ship” warehouse fire in December.

The 15 GateHouse bargaining units represent 580 workers at 17 newspapers, including the Providence (RI) Journal, Worcester (MA) Telegram and Gazette, Erie (PA) Times-News, Peoria (IL) Journal Star, Springfield (IL) State Journal-Register, Rockford (IL) Register Star, Utica (NY) Observer Dispatch, The Herald News (Fall River, MA), The Enterprise (Brockton, MA), The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, MA), Lakeland (FL) Ledger, and the Sarasota (FL) Herald-Tribune. The staff of the Herald-Tribune, a newly organized Guild unit, shared the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting with the Tampa Bay Times for their five-part series “Insane. Invisible. In Danger.” That collaborative project detailed horrific conditions in Florida’s mental hospitals.

In the new campaign, the Guild is pushing back nationwide before media profiteers cause further wreckage to the communities they are supposed to serve.

The May 3 World Press Freedom Day action will include the display of pro-journalism literature at desks and other work stations, and appeals for public support in local communities and online. The theme: “Democracy Depends on Journalism” and “Invest in Us.”

The action will mark the first coordinated effort by news workers at the two companies to demonstrate solidarity in the workplace and remind the public that quality journalism matters.

NewsGuild members are reaching out to allies, including journalists working for other employers — both union and non-union — as well as community advocates concerned about the corporate gutting of newsrooms across the United States.

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Herald reporter suspended for violating social-media policy

Boston Herald reporter Chris Villani was given a three-day suspension for violating the paper’s social-media policy. According to Chris Sweeney of Boston magazine, Villani tweeted out some breaking news on the Aaron Hernandez case without first seeking permission from the higher-ups. (Note: This post has now been updated with a message to the staff by Herald publisher Pat Purcell and a response to Purcell by the Newspaper Guild. Just keep scrolling.)

A number of Herald reporters are boycotting Twitter in response to Villani’s punishment. Here’s a statement from the union that represents Herald employees:

The policy is the policy. But having to get permission from a top editor before tweeting seems unworkable for a news organization hoping to make an impact in the digital space.

Adam Vaccaro of The Boston Globe has more. An interesting side note: Herald editor Joe Sciacca declined to comment to the Globe even after providing a rather fulsome statement to Boston magazine.

Update: Herald publisher Pat Purcell has weighed in.

Update II: The Newspaper Guild has now responded to Purcell.

Guild members are grateful to Pat Purcell for keeping the Boston Herald alive and thriving during a difficult time for the newspaper industry. We respect his leadership and his decades of experience.

No one is more concerned with matters of reputation and accuracy than his Guild employees. After all, our names go on the stories; our reputations are on the line if any of the information is wrong. The same holds true for our social media accounts, where our names, pictures, and occupations accompany every single post. We are well aware that if we were to use social media recklessly, we would lose the trust both of sources who help us do our jobs as well as our readers.

We agree with Pat that there is a need for a policy, but we have deep reservations about certain aspects that Herald Media Inc. has incorporated into its policy. In our view, the response our members have expressed about this recent enforcement is an opportunity to open the door to discuss making changes.

We remain committed to providing Boston Herald readers with the best quality journalism in the city and look forward to speaking with him.

The Guild

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Geoff Edgers looks back at the life of David Halberstam 10 years after his demise

Halberstam in his kitchen on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Photo (cc) 2003 by John Barth.

Geoff Edgers of The Washington Post reminds us that we lost the great David Halberstam 10 years ago. Halberstam wrote one of the most important books I’ve ever read — “The Powers That Be,” on the rise of the Post, the Los Angeles Times, CBS News and Time magazine. It had a huge influence on me, and I vividly remember wading through it in 1979 while I was working at my first full-time newspaper job and living on the seedy side of Beacon Hill. (Yes, Beacon Hill had a seedy side at that time.)

Later I read two of Halberstam’s sports books, “The Breaks of The Game” and “The Teammates,” the latter a wonderful story about the friendship of Red Sox players Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Dominic DiMaggio, and Bobby Doerr during their final years. Halberstam’s Vietnam book, “The Best and the Brightest,” is widely acknowledged as one of the most important pieces of journalism ever produced about that misguided war.

Edgers writes:

For Halberstam, the facts were the foundation. And that foundation established a truth that allowed him to draw on his vast knowledge of politics, psychology and social structure. He also, on a simple level, simply worked harder than anyone else. The evidence is in the 21 books he left behind.

He was also fiercely competitive and could hold a grudge. If Halberstam has faded into the mists of your memory, read Edgers’ account. It will remind you of what made him one of the greatest journalists of the 20th century.

Seth Gitell has posted a short but sweet remembrance of Halberstam on Facebook.

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Yes, ‘S-Town’ is voyeuristic. It’s also a brilliantly insightful look at the human condition.

Photo via Pixabay.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Warning: The following commentary contains spoilers.

As I was pondering “S-Town,” the podcast from “This American Life” that tells the story of a small Alabama town and one of its more colorful residents, an old line by the writer Janet Malcolm leapt into my head: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

Somehow I was not surprised that someone else had the same thought. But whereas Gay Alcorn, writing in The Guardian, uses Malcolm’s observation to condemn the makers of “S-Town,” I think it’s more complicated than that. Malcolm was writing nearly three decades ago about a convicted murderer, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, who had no choice but to trust Joe McGinniss, the journalist-collaborator who betrayed him. Brian Reed, the host of “S-Town,” is operating in a far more egalitarian media environment, an age in which those who don’t like the way journalists tell their story will tell it themselves.

John B. McLemore, the brilliant, mentally ill protagonist of “S-Town,” may not have been entirely aware of what he was in for the day that he convinced Reed to investigate a murder that turned out not to have taken place. But McLemore never seems not to be in control of his own story — even after his suicide, even after Reed reveals some fairly shocking facts that McLemore himself had not been fully forthcoming about. Despite that, it is McLemore’s voice and sensibility that dominate. This is his story, even if it took Reed’s skill and nerve to tell it.

“S-Town” is the cleaned-up name for “Shit Town,” as McLemore called his hometown of Woodstock, Ala. McLemore is many things — a nationally recognized restorer of antique clocks; a highly intelligent liberal immersed in the right-wing culture of the white Deep South; a gay man whose sexual orientation is more or less an open secret. But it is his foul-mouthed, highly inventive monologues on subjects ranging from climate change to the alleged corruption of the local police department that capture our interest and draw us deeper into his damaged psyche.

Reed had pretty much set McLemore and Woodstock aside after his investigation of a murder evaporated amid a tangle of misunderstood facts and conspiratorial whispers. He returns after learning that McLemore had committed suicide in a particularly grotesque manner: he drank cyanide while ranting on the phone with the town clerk. Though McLemore obsessed over the details of global warming and the world financial system, and had long talked about killing himself, he’d given very little thought to what would happen after he died. He left no will, and he made no provisions for his elderly mother, who was suffering from dementia. Those oversights lead to the tensions that unfold over the final five hours of the seven-hour podcast.

“S-Town” isn’t really a story — or, rather, it is many stories, mostly unresolved. Mysteries fizzle. Plot lines lead nowhere. By the time it ends, we understand just how psychologically unbalanced McLemore was, especially during the last few years of his life. But Reed thumbs his nose at Chekhov’s rule that if a gun appears early in a story, then it must be fired before it ends. Did McLemore really bury a stash of gold out in the woods? Were the cousins up to no good or not? Why, after McLemore killed himself, did the town clerk not call his closest friends until after the funeral was over? Whatever became of McLemore’s “stepson,” Tyler Goodson? We never really learn.

But these are mere details. What makes “S-Town” riveting is the way Reed develops the characters of Woodstock, and especially of McLemore, peeling back more and more until there’s nothing left to show. It’s that unpeeling process that makes Gay Alcorn so uncomfortable. She writes:

Understanding another person is worthwhile; whether to make a seven-part podcast series about a person, when they never agreed to it, is another question, and one that Reed unfortunately does not address. The interviews, hours and hours of tapes left whirring away, were granted by a person who was not a public figure, a person Reed knew was mentally ill, and agreed to for an entirely different purpose. That requires an explanation.

Unlike Alcorn, I think “S-Town” is a lot more than a compulsively listenable story. Reed tells us something insightful about what it means to be a fully human, fully flawed person. Despite everything we find out about McLemore, some of it pretty disturbing, he is never stripped of his dignity. We are brought deeply into the life of another person and, in so doing, we learn something important about ourselves.

That is all the explanation needed. I think John McLemore would agree.

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Three quick thoughts on the departure of Bill O’Reilly and what it means for Fox News

Possibly deceased wild boar in Hawaii. Photo (cc) 2011 by Michael DuPonte.

Three quick thoughts about the departure of Bill O’Reilly from Fox News thanks to his long, sordid history of sexual harassment finally catching up with him.

1. Although the Murdochs had apparently already decided that Bill-O had to go, a story in Wednesday’s New York Times about yet another accuser was a clear sign that if O’Reilly had stayed, it was never going to end. If you missed it, here is the most humiliating passage:

Ms. Bloom [Lisa Bloom, the accuser’s lawyer] said the woman, who is African-American, worked in a clerical position at the network but did not work directly for Mr. O’Reilly. The woman reported that in 2008, Mr. O’Reilly would stop by her desk and grunt like a “wild boar”; he would also stand back to allow her to exit the elevator first and then say, “Looking good, girl,” Ms. Bloom said. Mr. O’Reilly leered at the woman’s cleavage and legs and called her “hot chocolate,” Ms. Bloom said.

2. We are awash in accusations of fake news and conspiracy theories. O’Reilly himself continues to deny that he did anything wrong. For the sake of the public discourse (as if), the Murdochs should tell O’Reilly that there will be no pile of cash as he walks out the door unless he issues at least a vague statement taking responsibility for his loathsome actions.

3. The future of the Fox News Channel is very much in doubt. Though numerous observers have pointed out that Tucker Carlson — who’s been awarded O’Reilly’s coveted 8 p.m. time slot — has done better in the ratings than Megyn Kelly did previously, he has a long track record as a ratings loser. O’Reilly was the straw that stirred the drink. Roger Ailes, another lech now gone, was the genius who figured it all out. What are the odds on James and Lachlan Murdoch getting it right?

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