I just finished listening to the 10th episode of the podcast “Murder in Boston,” produced by The Boston Globe and HBO, which revisits the infamous 1989 Charles Stuart case. The podcast and the Globe series had concluded, but Globe columnist Adrian Walker, who narrates the podcast, explains that the decision was made to release one more episode after Mayor Michelle Wu publicly apologized to the Black community for the city’s and the police department’s racist response. And here’s a good overview of the Globe’s reporting by Sarah Scire of Nieman Lab. Both are well worth your time.
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I was sorry to hear that the Center for Public Integrity is in danger of shutting down. Although some observers are going to portray the center’s woes as further evidence that we are in the midst of a news meltdown, I suspect the answer is simpler than that. There’s only so much room for a nationally focused nonprofit investigative reporting organization, and ProPublica has sucked up most of the oxygen. ProPublica was founded in 2007; the lower-profile CPI dates back all the way to 1989.
CPI’s editor-in-chief, Matt DeRenzio, has already left, according to Benjamin Mullin’s account in The New York Times. I got to know Matt about a dozen years ago, when he was editor of the New Haven Register. He’s a good guy, and I hope he lands on his feet.
My friend and former Boston Phoenix colleague Kristen Lombardi, the finest reporter I’ve ever worked with, was on staff at CPI for a number of years, where she helped to report a series of stories about sexual abuse on college campuses. When Rolling Stone’s infamous story about an alleged rape victim at the University of Virginia fell apart, the Columbia School of Journalism conducted an in-depth post-mortem — and interviewed Kristen on how to do such sensitive reporting the right way. Kristen now runs Columbia’s postgraduate reporting program.
The full story of what happened to CPI may be yet to come out. According to the Times, the just-departed chief executive, Paul Cheung, has been accused by an employee of financial misbehavior, which Cheung has denied. According to tax records I looked up at GuideStar, Cheung received about $318,000 in total compensation in 2022 — maybe in line with a nonprofit of CPI’s size, but a lot of money given that the organization was already spending more than it was taking in.
During the Massachusetts governor’s race in 2022, Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr strangely turned on his allies in the MAGA wing of the state party and began attacking them in his column and on his radio show. Howie being Howie? Well, maybe. Or maybe not.
Scott Van Voorhis, who writes the newsletter Contrarian Boston, reports that Carr’s motives may have been a lot simpler than that: the state GOP owed him money. With the Democratic candidate for governor, Maura Healey, coasting to victory, Van Voorhis writes that Carr began “savagely” attacking the then-head of the state party, Jim Lyons, and Healey’s Republican rival, Geoff Diehl.
It turns out that Lyons’ wrecking crew owed Carr more than $7,000 for ads on Carr’s radio program, which he owns. Lyons’ replacement as party chair, the slightly less MAGA-ish Amy Carnevale, is now paying back Carr at the rate of $500 a month. Van Voorhis is careful to note that it’s not clear if the dispute over those unpaid bills came about before or after Carr began attacking Lyons and Diehl.
And here’s a fun detail: Van Voorhis credits the MassGOP Majority newsletter for breaking the story. But when you click through, you learn that though that may be the URL, the actual name of the newsletter is Kool-Aid Kult Kronicles. Apparently that is some sort of joking reference to something Carr said. There’s more news, too, including WRKO Radio’s supposed decision to ban Diehl from its airwaves because of “the perennial candidate’s repeated, baseless claims that Howie Carr is being paid by the MassGOP to attack him and his slate of candidates for Republican State Committee.”
Now, let’s get serious for a moment. Van Voorhis describes Carr as “not exactly the kind of guy you want to piss off.” True enough. But how far can Carr veer from the ethics of journalism and still manage to write for the Herald? Journalists — even opinion journalists like Carr — are expected to maintain their independence. We don’t give money to candidates. We don’t take money from candidates. And we don’t criticize candidates and party officials who owe us money, whether there is a direct connection between those two facts or not.
Just grotesque stuff from someone who wrote a must-read column back in the 1980s and has long since devolved into a caricature of himself.
Boston Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr calls for the return of the ombudsperson, sometimes known as the public editor — an in-house journalist who holds their own news organization to account. As she observes, at one time such positions were common at large media outlets such as The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The New York Times.
They were eliminated, for the most part, when financial pressures made such a position seem like an unaffordable luxury. But as Stohr argues, with the Times and the Globe once again profitable and growing, “They can easily bring them back as a signal that they value public trust.” (Note: Stohr interviewed me.)
I suggested the Globe bring back its ombudsperson last spring after the paper published an extensive correction about a story involving top executives at the MBTA who were reportedly working from distant locales. Instead, the Globe fired the lead reporter, Andrea Estes, and has never really offered an explanation as to what went wrong. Estes, a respected investigative journalist, is now working at the Plymouth Independent, a new nonprofit edited by Mark Pothier, himself a former top Globe editor.
As far as I know, the only major news organization that still has a public editor is NPR, where those duties are carried out by Kelly McBride, who’s also senior vice president at the Poynter Institute. Meanwhile, as Stohr writes, the Times is increasingly under fire on social media from liberal critics who complain that the paper normalizes Donald Trump by treating him like a typical presidential candidate rather than as someone facing 91 criminal charges who attempted to foment an insurrection. I largely share that critique, although I think some of it is overblown.
The presence of a public editor, Stohr writes, “can help journalists be more self-aware while not placing the burden of public criticism on individual reporters, who are usually not in a position to make the sort of organization-wide changes that are often necessary to restore public confidence.”
The public editor was not a perfect institution by any means. Partly it depends on the skill of the person doing it. The Times’ next-to-last public editor, Margaret Sullivan, was the best I can think of, and Stohr quotes a post Sullivan wrote on Twitter/X arguing that the Times needs to bring that position back. Partly it depends on how willing top editors are to provide access. (Sullivan, who still writes media criticism for The Guardian and her own newsletter, is now executive director at the Craig Newmark Center on Journalism Ethics & Security at the Columbia School of Journalism.)
But there are certain things an in-house critic can do that an outside commentator can’t. A public editor has the time to dig deeply and, if they have the cooperation and support of the top leadership, can make a real contribution in helping the public understand why certain decisions are made. And, sometimes, what the story was behind mistakes and misjudgments.
More: There is still an Organization of News Ombudsmen, though I don’t know how active it is. If you look at the U.S. members, you’ll see that most of them hold titles like “managing editor for standards.” I should have noted that PBS has a public editor, Ric Sandoval-Palos.
For those of us who care about the byzantine internal politics of The New York Times, there is a tantalizing aside in Adam Rubenstein’s essay in The Atlantic about his stint as an editor in the opinion section. Rubenstein was involved in editing the infamous June 2020 op-ed by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (free link) calling for the use of the Insurrection Act to suppress violent demonstrators at Black Lives Matter protests. The op-ed led to an internal revolt at the Times and, ultimately, the firing of editorial-page editor James Bennet.
One of the principal charges against Bennet was that he admitted he hadn’t read Cotton’s screed before publishing it. Yet Rubenstein’s Atlantic essay, which is sympathetic to Bennet, includes this:
In addition to my own edits, I incorporated edits conveyed by Bennet, Dao, and the deputy op-ed editor, Clay Risen; then a copy editor went over the essay.
(Dao, by the way, is James Dao, now editorial-page editor at The Boston Globe.)
“Edits conveyed by Bennet”? What, precisely, is that supposed to mean? Did Bennet have a hand in editing the piece or didn’t he? It sure sounds like Rubenstein is telling us that Bennet read the op-ed before it was published — but that contradicts what’s on the public record. For instance, here’s an excerpt from the story (free link) that the Times itself wrote about the controversy just before Bennet was fired:
James Bennet, the editor in charge of the opinion section, said in a meeting with staff members late in the day that he had not read the essay before it was published. Shortly afterward, The Times issued a statement saying the essay fell short of the newspaper’s standards.
Last December, in a massively long essay revisiting the entire affair, Bennet himself reiterated in The Economist’s 1843 Magazine, where he is a columnist, that he had not read the op-ed. He recounts an internal meeting at which he tried to defend himself and the decision to publish Cotton’s piece:
[A] pop-culture reporter asked if I had read the op-ed before it was published. I said I had not. He immediately put his head down and started typing, and I should have paid attention rather than moving on to the next question. He was evidently sharing the news with the company over Slack. If he had followed up, or I had, I might have explained that this was standard practice. Dao’s name was on the masthead of the New York Times because he was in charge of the op-ed section. If I insisted on reviewing every piece, I would have been doing his job for him – and been betraying a crippling lack of trust in one of the papers’ finest editors.
There is one other tidbit in Bennet’s piece that perhaps Rubenstein is referring to: “Rubenstein also told me that in one draft Cotton had linked disapprovingly to a tweet from a Times reporter that could be read as expressing support for the rioters. I told Rubenstein to make sure that this link was removed. I had prohibited criticising any work, including any social-media activity, from the newsroom, unless I ran the idea by a senior newsroom editor first.”
Is that the edit “conveyed by Bennet” that Rubenstein refers to in The Atlantic? If so, it’s a pretty thin reed. Rubenstein and his editors at The Atlantic should have realized that he was directly contradicting what Bennet had said about his involvement in Cotton’s op-ed and clarified that Bennet was merely responding to a routine question Rubenstein had asked him. And if Rubenstein is suggesting that Bennet was more involved than he has claimed, then that should have been highlighted, not buried in an aside.
Aside from the ambiguities about the degree to which Bennet was involved in editing Cotton’s op-ed, there is at least one other significant failure by Rubenstein and his editors. In attempting to prove that the Times newsroom is hermetically sealed in a left-wing bubble, he takes a shot at Times reporter Edward Wong, writing:
A diplomatic correspondent, Edward Wong, wrote in an email to colleagues that he typically chose not to quote Cotton in his own stories because his comments “often represent neither a widely held majority opinion nor a well-thought-out minority opinion.” This message was revealing. A Times reporter saying that he avoids quoting a U.S. senator? What if the senator is saying something important? What sorts of minority opinions met this correspondent’s standards for being well thought-out?
Wong responded on Twitter/X:
This passage in @TheAtlantic essay by Adam Rubenstein is wrong. The quote is from a paragraph in which I discussed only China policy. I named a GOP senator whom I think speaks with more substance on China than Cotton. Readers know I quote a wide range of knowledgeable analysis.
I respect @TheAtlantic. It should issue a correction. No one asked me for comment, or I would’ve pointed out the false context. The irony is that Rubenstein twisted a line to fit his ideological point — the very act he criticizes. And all serious journalists scrutinize opinions.
In other words, Rubenstein inflates Wong’s well-founded skepticism of Cotton’s expertise (or lack thereof) on one topic into what amounts to an ideologically based boycott of anything Cotton might tell him. This is sleazy and wrong, and The Atlantic needs to respect Wong’s request for a correction.
The Atlantic appears to be in the clear on one other controversy. Rubenstein opens with an anecdote aimed at making the Times look like a caricature of what the right might imagine to be wokeism gone wild:
On one of my first days at The New York Times, I went to an orientation with more than a dozen other new hires. We had to do an icebreaker: Pick a Starburst out of a jar and then answer a question. My Starburst was pink, I believe, and so I had to answer the pink prompt, which had me respond with my favorite sandwich. Russ & Daughters’ Super Heebster came to mind, but I figured mentioning a $19 sandwich wasn’t a great way to win new friends. So I blurted out, “The spicy chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A,” and considered the ice broken.
The HR representative leading the orientation chided me: “We don’t do that here. They hate gay people.” People started snapping their fingers in acclamation. I hadn’t been thinking about the fact that Chick-fil-A was transgressive in liberal circles for its chairman’s opposition to gay marriage. “Not the politics, the chicken,” I quickly said, but it was too late. I sat down, ashamed.
Columbia Journalism School professor Bill Grueskin, who is not one to swing from the hips, wrote on Twitter that perhaps Rubenstein’s tale is just a little too good to be true: “I will swear on a stack of AP stylebooks that it is perfectly acceptable for editors, even at @TheAtlantic, to both fact-check first-person anecdotes and tell your readers you did that.” Times Magazine writer and Howard University professor Nikole Hannah-Jones went further, asserting, “Never happened.”
But evidence has emerged that the session Rubenstein describes actually did happen. Conservative commentator Jesse Singal wrote that he obtained a statement from The Atlantic confirming its accuracy, and former Times opinion writer Bari Weiss said that Rubenstein “told me and others that story when it happened.”
One final observation. “As painful as it was in my mid-20s to think that my journalistic career would end as a result of this episode,” Rubenstein writes of his decision to leave the Times, “it’s even more painful to think that newsrooms haven’t learned the right lessons from it.”
In his mid-20s? When you’re in your mid-20s, you should be covering city council meetings or, if you’re adventurous, a war. If Rubenstein really wants to explore what’s wrong with the culture of the Times newsroom, he might begin with an examination of how someone as young and inexperienced as he found himself holding an important editing job at our most influential news organization without having any relevant journalism experience beyond working at The Weekly Standard and interning at The Wall Street Journal.
It has become a strange and perverse exercise. Every so often, Press Gazette, a U.K.-based website that tracks developments in the news business, rounds up the latest weekday print circulation figures reported by U.S. newspapers and informs us that, yes, they’re down once again. For instance: The Wall Street Journal, 555,200, a drop of 14% over the previous year; The New York Times, 267,600, down 13%; The Boston Globe, 56,900, down 11%.
These same news organizations, though, are succeeding in selling digital subscriptions. The Times has 9.7 million digital-only subscribers. The Journal is around 3.5 million. The Globe has about 250,000, and CEO Linda Henry has announced a push for 400,000.
Why does Press Gazette persist in tracking these print-only numbers? Because they’re there. Twice a year, the Alliance for Audited Media reports print circulation for every newspaper that’s a member. Reliable digital numbers are much harder to come by.
As the Press Gazette itself concedes: “While print remains an important revenue stream, data on digital subscriptions presents a more promising picture.” No kidding.
Boston Globe Media CEO Linda Henry just announced some pretty big news: chief operating officer and chief financial officer Dhiraj Nayar has been promoted to president; Henry herself will be less involved in the business side and more focused on “additional bandwidth to better support our world-class editors”; and she’s aiming for a “North Star” goal of 400,000 digital subscribers for the Globe, which would represent a considerable increase over its current level of about 250,000. Henry has also set a goal of 100,000 paid digital subscribers for Stat, which is Globe Media’s health and medicine publication.
The first thing that strikes me about the circulation goal is that Henry must be planning a significant expansion into parts of New England where the Globe isn’t especially visible. Currently the paper has digital editions focused on Rhode Island and New Hampshire, and has bolstered its coverage of Greater Boston as well. The second is that Henry, who has been fully in charge of the business side since 2020, is planning a significantly different role for herself. We’ll see how that plays out.
Here is the text of Henry’s email to the staff, provided to me a little while ago by a trusted newsroom source:
As CEO, my number one priority is to continue setting us up for long term success. Today, I’m excited to share changes that strengthen our leadership team for increased resilience and adaptability in our ever-evolving business landscape.
I am delighted to announce the elevation of Dhiraj Nayar to the role of President of Boston Globe Media.
Dhiraj joined the Globe in 2018 as CFO, bringing over 20 years of management consulting experience. In 2020, he also became COO and has demonstrated collaborative leadership and dedication to the company’s mission while supporting key areas of our business including printing, distribution, and operations. His strategic insight and ability to balance financial discipline while allowing for growth investments has played an instrumental role in shaping the success and stability of Boston Globe Media.
Before joining Boston Globe Media, Dhiraj worked as a management consultant, advising senior executives at media/information, financial, telecom and private equity companies. He led initiatives at multinationals such as Unilever, Wolters Kluwer, Telstra and American Express. His private equity work included initiatives with Francisco Partners and MacAndrews & Forbes among others. He was the managing director of Meritum Partners, a boutique management consultancy he founded, and was a partner at Opera Solutions (now ElectrifAi). He started his consulting career at A.T. Kearney (now Kearney), a global management consulting firm, after earning an M.B.A from Columbia Business School.
In his new role as President, Dhiraj will oversee our business functions, with a focus on setting us up for long term sustainability. He will continue leading finance and will work closely with me to set our organizational vision and strategy.
What changes for me?
I will continue to serve as CEO and will remain fully engaged in my work with all members of our Senior Leadership Team. With Dhiraj managing our business functions, I’m excited to have additional bandwidth to better support our world-class editors. I truly love working here. I am proud of the work that we do to serve our community and I am invested in remaining an active part of this organization for the rest of my career.
After a transformative decade of growth and innovation at Boston Globe Media, the Senior Leadership Team and I have set North Star goals of 500K direct digital subscribers for Boston Globe Media, with 100K of those for STAT. These targets underscore our commitment to the long term sustainability of this institution with a strong leadership team at the helm.
As CEO, I have been intentional in making sure our leadership team fosters a culture of innovation and maintains a steadfast dedication to our long term success. In the last four years alone, we have demonstrated remarkable resilience and innovation, navigating a global pandemic and expanding our reporting into critical areas. We have celebrated significant milestones: the Globe’s 150th anniversary and winning our 27th Pulitzer Prize. Our newsrooms have earned some of the most prestigious honors in journalism, including the Polk, Edward R. Murrow and Online Journalism Awards. We have been named Pulitzer Finalists every year. In addition, we are recognized for excellence in many areas of our work, including our digital products with top website design, our advertising solutions and our marketing campaigns. We were recently named among the top 100 most innovative places to work in the country. We have expanded our geographical footprint in Rhode Island and New Hampshire, we launched Boston Globe Today, we rebuilt and optimized Boston.com, and we have brought in fantastic new editors, Nancy Barnes and Jim Dao. We are continuing to add to our newsroom teams, to invest in our journalism, and to improve our subscriber experience.
Additional Leadership Updates
- Dan Krockmalnic will be assuming operational oversight of our printing and distribution operations. In this expanded role, Dan will work closely with Josh Russell, GM, Print Operations and his Taunton-based leadership team. He will continue leading the Legal and New Media teams as well as the company’s work on legislative and advocacy issues through his service on the board of the News Media Alliance and as Vice President of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association.
- Rodrigo Tajonar will be assuming oversight of the building operations team led by Lauren Rich. He will continue to lead the human resource function.
- Tom Brown has been promoted to SVP, Consumer Revenue. Tom has served as the strategic leader of our consumer revenue and subscription strategy and built a highly functioning and talented team that is well regarded throughout our industry. Tom also oversaw consumer marketing from 2018 – 2020 when he and his team pioneered a new acquisition approach with a long trial period that propelled significant subscriber growth and has been widely adopted throughout our industry. As a result, we are the clear leader among all major metro publishers in the number of digital subscribers and revenue from those subscriptions.
- Michelle Micone has been promoted to SVP, Innovation & Strategic Initiatives. Michelle started our Innovation practice in 2020. Since then, she has grown Hack Day into Innovation Week and led the establishment of the Innovation Platform, which has increased our employee engagement around new idea generation and implementation, including the launch of the B-Side. Michelle will continue to lead Innovation and will partner with various leaders at BGM on Strategic Initiatives such as Globe Rhode Island, Globe New Hampshire, Tech Powers Players, AI, and more. Michelle and her team are currently leading the development of Games, scheduled to launch next month on com [BostonGlobe.com].
The changes announced today move us forward, keeping us focused on fulfilling our critical mission and positioning our organization for long term sustainability.
Please join me in congratulating Dhiraj, Dan, Tom, Michelle and Rodrigo. I look forward to connecting with you at our next Town Hall on Monday, March 4th.