Now more than ever: Walter Lippmann and the need for reliable journalism

Walter Lippmann. Photo via the Library of Congress.

The crisis we are living through is, among other things, a crisis of journalism. Never before have we had such ready access to high-quality sources of news and information (at least at the national level; local journalism, sadly, is in freefall). At the same time, those sources have been under constant attack since Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” speech of 1969, culminating in President Trump’s denigration of journalists as “Enemies of the People” and their work product as “fake news.”

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How should the media cover (and not cover) mass shootings and white nationalist terror?

Amid the carnage in El Paso and Dayton, a smaller story played out this week. It’s worth recounting because it has much to tell us about where we are at as a nation — and about the challenges facing journalism as we try to figure out how to cover this awful moment in our history.

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Newspaper Guild charges Boston Globe management with unfair labor practices

The increasingly ugly contract negotiations between the Boston Newspaper Guild and Boston Globe management have taken a turn for the worse. According to Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal, union employees were scheduled to stage a lunchtime walkout today.

Meanwhile, the Guild’s executive committee announced this morning that it would file an unfair labor practices complaint against management with the National Labor Relations Board. The executive committee’s statement is as follows:

Contract negotiations between the Boston Newspaper Guild and Boston Globe Media Partners show the company has no intention of backing down from its draconian proposals.

After eight months of bargaining, the company still expects us to give up overtime, seniority, pay scales, job descriptions, severance, protections from having our jobs outsourced, and more.

The union would also lose the right to defend its members against management abuses.

The company has also stated that any wage increases would not be retroactive. Their negotiators even turned down a simple union request to extend the time vacations could be rolled over even though it would cost the company nothing.

All this is being done under the guise of creating a more “flexible and nimble” company. What it will do is create a more rigid working atmosphere with fewer rights for workers.

Given the slow pace of contract negotiations and the insulting strong-arm tactics used by the company’s lawyers, the Guild has decided file an unfair labor practice charge against the Globe.

We will accept nothing but a fair contract.

Signed,
The Boston Newspaper Guild Executive Committee

The Guild represents about 300 employees. (Note: I’ve deleted a copy of the Guild’s complaint. It included several email addresses and phone numbers, and the content added nothing to the statement above.)

Earlier: Newspaper Guild and John Henry trade charges over Globe contract talks (Feb. 27)

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GateHouse Media brass touts Gannett deal in confidential message to employees

Al Neuharth in 1999. Photo (cc) by John Mathew Smith and http://www.celebrity-photos.com.

Following the completion of a long-anticipated deal to merge GateHouse Media with Gannett, GateHouse’s top two executives, Mike Reed and Kirk Davis, sent a confidential message to the troops, a copy of which was forwarded to me by a trusted source.

GateHouse and Gannett are the two largest newspaper publishers in the United States. By coming together, they have created a media colossus, albeit one whose decline continues apace. Reed and Davis’ message says in part:

We are incredibly proud of this team’s commitment to high-quality journalism and community leadership; this mission will remain at our core. The Gannett acquisition positions us as the leader in community journalism in the United States. In addition, we believe that together, we are well-positioned to address the profound changes our industry has faced in media consumption habits and advertising spend.

As you can see for yourself, the memo is mainly corporate boilerplate (and I don’t just mean the literal boilerplate on the second and third pages). For me, the main takeaway is that they say nice things about Gannett’s flagship, USA Today, which suggests that GateHouse — clearly the lead player despite being smaller than Gannett — isn’t going to mess around with Al Neuharth’s baby, at least not right away.

By the way, you’ll see a reference in the memo to BridgeTower Media, a name I was not familiar with. It turns out that’s the name for a GateHouse division that publishes B2B titles such as Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.

The newspaper analyst Ken Doctor broke the news of the impending merger over the weekend. Keep an eye on the debt the combined company is taking on. Doctor estimates that it could be as high as $2 billion, which would seem to suggest further cuts ahead regardless of what kinds of cost efficiencies GateHouse-Gannett is able to achieve. As I wrote for WGBHNews.org two months ago, when it first became clear that the two companies would merge:

When a chain takes on debt to keep buying more properties and extracts revenues from its individual papers in order to satisfy shareholders, there is simply less money available for journalism than there would be with independent ownership.

I don’t think this was necessarily a terrible day for local journalism. MNG Enterprises, the hedge fund-owned chain formerly known as Digital First, was kept at bay, and that’s not nothing. But neither was it a good day. Committed local ownership is the key, and this merger moves us that much farther away from it.

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Zap! Pow! The debates need to move beyond conflict, time limits and fringe candidates

The good old days: Abraham Lincoln debates Stephen Douglas in 1858.

Here we go again.

Four years ago the media gave an enormous boost to Donald Trump by making him the star of their multi-candidate Republican presidential debates. Despite his racist demagoguery and his utter lack of qualifications, Trump was moved to center stage and allowed to talk longer than anyone else because of his poll numbers and his salutary effect on TV ratings.

This time, at least, the Democratic candidates getting the center-stage treatment are reasonably plausible future presidents. But during CNN’s two-night extravaganza this week, and at the NBC debates last month, the same flaws were on display: an emphasis on combat over substance, a ridiculous adherence to time limits (at least NBC let Kamala Harris and Joe Biden go at it), and the elevation of fringe candidates who really have no business being there.

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The Lowell Sun sports editor’s farewell column was taken down. Here’s every word of it.

Note: The hedge fund-owned newspaper chain MediaNews Group recently laid off several people at its Massachusetts papers, including sports editor Dennis Whitton of The Sun in Lowell. Whitton posted a farewell column on The Sun’s website and linked to it on Twitter, but when I tried to read it, it was gone — taken down (by management), he said in a tweet. (The column did appear in print.) An anonymous person with access to the CMS forwarded it to me, and I was able to verify that it was authentic. Here is Whitton’s farewell:

40 years of memories

By Dennis Whitton

“And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you. No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun…”

— Pink Floyd, “Time”

LOWELL — It’s more like 40 years have got behind me. Where have they gone? What do I have to show for them? Can I get some of them back?

After 35 years as The Sun’s sports boss and another 5-6 behind that as a reporter, co-op, cub and otherwise, your intrepid correspondent will be leaving the building this afternoon for the final time.

Corporate cost-cutting is the culprit. Apparently I was making too much money to suit the suits, even with years of frozen wages. I didn’t realize I was making so much. I would have spent more.

Our assistant sports boss, Barry Scanlon, is in the same liferaft. That’s a real head-scratcher because Barry was the staff workhorse and he loved what he did for the most part and did it extremely well. Like me, he took maybe two sick days in 22 years. But he, too, was unknowingly making too much money.

My super-supportive wife Jan says I should use the term “let go” when talking about this stuff because it sounds better than “laid off.”

It probably also sounds better than fired, downsized, axed, canned, dumped, released and forced out, too. But any way you cut it, we’re down to the final countdown in a job I’ve held since before that ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs.

If I sound bitter you’re reading me wrong. With all the technology now in play it’s a young person’s game. I’ve probably overstayed my “sell by” date and now I’m looking forward to the next chapter. Of the book I’m reading. Sitting on the beach.

At least the ax wasn’t performance-related. I know that because the suits in question have no idea what Barry and I did or how we did it. In the end we were numbers on a spreadsheet. There is one major downside to the affair: According to the exit agreement, my discounted employee newspaper subscription will be rolled over to the regular customer rate at the end of the month. Damn.

Everybody knows newspapers are yesterday’s news, useful mainly to parents making scrapbooks for their high school heroes. In the Internet age there isn’t much we can tell you in the rag that you couldn’t have found out 12 hours ago. Advertisers know this, which is why newspapers are circling the drain. Which is why we’ve been let go, and a number of other good people before and after us.

Those were the days.

In looking back for this “farewell column” that the aforementioned Jan has pressured me to write, I realize nearly all of my most interesting times in the game came in the previous century. After that I became a cynical curmudgeon.

So in a nutshell, and with apologies for the overuse of the dreaded pronoun “I,” here are some of my memories:

One of my first assignments as a Northeastern (Class of ’80) co-op student in the Sun sports department was the 1978 Beanpot. Of course the Blizzard of ’78 hit and I was stuck wandering Boston for five days. At least I didn’t bail. A true newspaperman.

In October of that same year I was in the overflow “press box” on the left field roof at Fenway Park when Bucky Dent’s home run cleared the fence so close to me I could almost read Bowie Kuhn’s signature on the baseball.

I covered a lot of Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics games in that time period (much of it while still in college) and even went on several Sox road trips when Charlie (not yet Chaz) Scoggins was on vacation. Milwaukee, Baltimore, Cleveland, the Bronx, Arlington, Texas — all the garden spots. I rode the team buses (Luis Tiant was a hoot. Nobody talked to Yaz. The nicest guy was Jack Brohamer) and stayed at the team hotels.

Jack Costello, the editor whose family owned the paper, wasn’t averse to spending money, at least where travel was concerned (lunch was another matter). Now we don’t even go to the Garden because it costs too much to park.

In September of 1979 I was off to Syracuse for a feature story on Ayer’s Joe Morris, who was setting records for the Orange. From there I detoured down to Madison Square Garden where I covered Larry Bird’s first exhibition game with the Celtics. Still have the press pass to prove it.

In 1982, the paper sent me to Kitchener, Ontario, for three days to do a profile of junior hockey superstar Brian Bellows because the Bruins had the first overall pick in the draft. The stories came out OK, but the B’s went and drafted Gord Kluzak instead.

Jack sent me to Augusta National to cover five Masters Tournaments, ending with Tiger’s historic win in 1997. Got to play the course in 1990 and made birdie on the par-3 sixth with a rented Cannon 5-iron to six feet. Been living off that story ever since. Also got to take the ferry over to Long Island for two U.S. Opens at Shinnecock Hills.

Speaking of golf, in 1999 we were double-teaming the Ryder Cup in Brookline until I told Dave Pevear on Saturday night to go ahead and cover the Patriots’ game on Sunday rather than come to the U.S. funeral at TCC. A case of over-managing.

In 1980, I remember covering the horrendous clubhouse fire at Rockingham Park. It was the morning after I hit the last race, with Skip Row paying $10.20 (I kept the program).

Closer to home there was a story on Dave Boutin, a ULowell catcher from Pawtucketville who was dying of cancer. That one has always stuck with me. Dave and his mother Fleurette were a source of inspiration, even for a cynic. Absolute profiles in courage.

In 1987, they sent me to Pasadena, Calif., for Super Bowl XXI to do stories on Ayer’s Joe Morris (again), by now the Giants’ star running back. From there Mr. Costello had me drive down to San Diego to do a piece on Dennis Conner, who had brought the America’s Cup back to the States in historic fashion.

Dennis was not even in the country, but there was some good yachting talk with various officials at the leather-and-mahogany San Diego Yacht Club. Nothing like some good yachting talk on the company’s dime. At least I got to see the actual Cup.

Westford golfer Pat Bradley always made time for me whenever I needed a story. I attended her Hall of Fame induction dinner in Boston in 1991 (still have the commemorative wine glass) — and shockingly ran into her atop Mt. Washington last year after she had hiked up through thick fog at age 67.

The Golden Gloves were my beat through the ’80s and into the ’90s. I covered Micky Ward’s amateur career (and later Ward-Gatti II), saw Mike Tyson destroy a poor local kid named Jimmy Bisson in 42 seconds in 1983, got to know the tireless Arthur Ramalho and his saint of a wife, Rita, and went on five or six National Golden Gloves trips.

The most memorable of those was in Albuquerque, N.M., when Gloves director Norm Lombardi, “chaperone” Jack Baldwin and I hopped on a small plane to Las Vegas one night. I had to call Ramalho’s hotel room to find out what happened to the heavyweight we had fighting in the tournament and cranked out the story from some cheap hotel off the strip where you had to duck under the TV set when you entered the room.

Norm was obsessed with that casino game where you plug in nickels and they fall into the bin and push other nickels over a cliff for a possible 20-cent payout. Obsessed.

From 1983-85 I left to work with another mentor, Frank Dyer, at the Boston Herald. We had a blast, but there was zero chance to write so I went looking and Lowell happened to be in need of a sports editor. At age 28 I took the job.

Which brings me to the old Sun All-Star sports banquets, usually held at the Windsor (now Lenzi’s) in Dracut. By actual count I did three banquets a year for 23 years until they were discontinued in 2008 — corporate cost-cutting was the culprit.

Introducing shy high school kids and reading about their accomplishments to beaming parents for two-plus hours a night was the drill. I dreaded it at the time but looking back it was a true highlight of my career.

We were able to talk with a ton of area coaches and AD’s and athletes and parents, and it no doubt helped our high school coverage, which was always The Sun’s bread and butter.

There were usually guest speakers, too. Tom Glavine was extremely nervous and kept repeating himself. Now he’s as polished as they come. His girlfriend at the time may have been overserved. Reggie Lewis showed up with a severe burn on his right hand.

A popcorn accident in the kitchen, he told us. Wink wink. Nod nod. Jim Calhoun spoke when he was still at NU and not yet the legend he became at UConn. And there were plenty more.

I covered a Marvin Hagler fight one winter night at the Worcester Centrum and got caught again in a raging blizzard. Unwilling to wait in a long line for gas, I negotiated my beloved but totally unreliable MGB roadster back to Lowell on absolute fumes, barely able to see out the windshield. It finally gave up as I pulled into the old Rex parking lot astride the Sun office. Loved that car.

The Rex was where a Lowell cop moonlighting as a snowplow driver hit my car one night and left a note on the windshield. Thus began a long friendship with Jack Dolan.

So in the interest of wrapping this thing up, let me throw out some other names of people who have helped me along the way, made the journey more enjoyable, and in some cases even became friends:

Jack Costello, Frank Dyer, Mickey Sullivan, Jim Moriarty, Gene Manley, Ken Hughes, Kendall Wallace, Meg Buckley, Shawn Smith, Peter Flynn, Paul Daley, Chris Scott, Jim Campanini, Bill Biswanger, the entire group of sports personnel, past and present, who turned the deadlines we faced every single day into child’s play.

Then there is my aunt Joyce Dalton in Wilmington, who faithfully clipped all of my articles from day one, regardless of topic, passed judgment and sent them down the family line through Auntie Moo.

I know there are others whose names will pop into my head as I drive home after writing this. If that’s you, I apologize.

But as the great Blues Traveler song goes: “It won’t mean a thing in a hundred years.”

— 30 —

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Private equity ownership is devastating retail — just as it has destroyed newspapers

The Washington Post reports some startling figures about the role of private equity firms in the retail business. According to the Post’s Abha Bhattarai:

More than 1.3 million Americans have lost their jobs in the past decade as a result of private equity ownership in retail, according to a report released Wednesday. That includes 600,000 retail workers, as well as 728,000 employees in related industries. Overall, the sector added more than 1 million jobs during that period. [my emphasis]

This is exactly what has happened to the newspaper business over the past several decades. Yes, the internet has devastated the economic model, with advertisers fleeing to Craigslist, Google and Facebook. But that’s only part of the story. The other part is that corporate chains have hollowed out newsrooms in order to maximize profits at a time when what was really needed was investment and patience.

The most notorious of the corporate raiders is MediaNews Group, formerly Digital First Media, which is owned by Alden Global Capital. MNG has all but destroyed once-great papers like The Denver Post and The Mercury News of San Jose, as U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren notes in her proposal to re-regulate Wall Street. Cuts continue at MNG’s Massachusetts holdings, the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg. Meanwhile, The Berkshire Eagle is rebuilding after a group of local business people bought the paper back from MNG.

Consider, too, that independent regional papers such as The Boston Globe and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis are doing reasonably well, and others are taking innovative steps such as giving iPads to their readers to ease the transition to all-digital (the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette), operating under hybrid for-profit/nonprofit ownership (The Philadelphia Inquirer) or are pursuing pure nonprofit ownership (The Salt Lake Tribune).

For years we’ve been hearing that Amazon is destroying retail — yet, as the Post observes, that part of the sector not being strangled by private equity has continued to grow. Newspapers’ business problems are very real. But surely they would be shrinking a lot more slowly, and perhaps groping their way toward sustainability, if they weren’t being destroyed by our financial overlords.

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Millennials and the news: A new study shows that they’re tuned in after all

Is there a more maligned demographic group in the United States than millennials? Blamed for everything from narcissism to avocado toast, adults between the ages of 18 and 34 are regularly disparaged as less ambitiousless tolerant, and less well-informed than members of older generations.

We believe these stereotypes even though they are supported by precious little in the way of evidence. In at least one of those categories, we now have some countervailing data. According to a new study by the Knight Foundation, millennials are regular news consumers who rely on journalism for information, entertainment, and guidance on how to vote.

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Better campaign coverage: More substance, less horse race — and holding Trump to account

Media coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign is shaping up to be the same depressing spectacle that it always is. With few exceptions, the press focuses on polls, fundraising, who’s up, who’s down, and who made a gaffe. Two and a half years after Hillary Clinton was denied the White House despite winning nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, there’s also a lot of dangerously silly talk about whether Americans are willing to elect a woman.

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Some contrary thoughts on the pending closure of Youngstown’s Vindicator

I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I want to sound a note of skepticism over the pending closure of The Vindicator, the only daily newspaper in Youngstown, Ohio. The paper is family-owned, and those who have looked at the situation — including Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab and Lukas I. Alpert of The Wall Street Journal — have noted that the family also owns the NBC and CW television affiliates.

That’s where I think some more reporting needs to be done. It’s been said that the owners couldn’t find a buyer, not even a cost-cutting chain like GateHouse Media. But it strikes me that that would be a dicey proposition given that the old owners would still be able to leverage relationships they’ve built with advertisers for many years in order to crush a paper that they would now see as a competitor.

I don’t know what the union situation is at the TV stations. But I do know that, according to the Journal, the unionized Vindicator employs 144 people. The TV stations could, if they wanted to, add some free web-only local coverage while hiring far fewer than 144 people in order to further put pressure on The Vindicator.

I realize this is a pretty cynical take and that The Vindicator’s business model has no doubt broken down, perhaps irretrievably. But I do think a little more needs to be said about this odd development.

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