Together, we can do something about local news coverage in Medford

Last fall I asked the lone full-time reporter for the Medford Transcript if he would take part in the mayoral debate I was helping to organize for the Medford Chamber of Commerce. He told me that he would have liked to, but that he couldn’t because he’d be covering it. A reasonable answer, although it also spoke to the Transcript’s lack of resources.

Not long after, he left the paper. The debate was covered by a part-time stringer. And today, more than a year and a half later, that full-time position still hasn’t been filled.

The Transcript does assign stringers to cover a few stories. They do a good job, and nothing I write here should be taken as denigrating their work. But in a city of nearly 58,000 people, we have enough news for a staff of two full-time staff reporters. Or four. Even when we had one, the young journalists who filled that position managed to write some important stories before moving on to bigger and better jobs. Zero, though, is just untenable.

Today Medford is very close to being a news desert, joining hundreds if not thousands of communities across the country that have so little coverage that they lack the reliable news and information they need to participate in local affairs in a meaningful way. Instead, we rely on Facebook, Nextdoor, Patch (which does have a little bit of original reporting), email lists, messages from the mayor, texts from the police department and reports by citizens who have the time and the inclination to sit through public meetings on Zoom and write them up.

As a longtime journalist and academic who studies the business of news, I want to share some thoughts on what might be done to solve the problem. Over the past few years, I’ve had several conversations with people in Medford about how to fill the gap created by the hollowing-out of our local newspaper. But solving the problem is a daunting task and, frankly, those conversations didn’t lead anywhere. First, though, a bit on how we got here. Continue reading “Together, we can do something about local news coverage in Medford”

A beautifully told story that offers nostalgia about local news but not much hope

The New York Times has published an article about Evan Brandt, the last reporter covering Pottstown, Pennsylvania. His paper, The Mercury, has been decimated by its owner, the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital. It’s a great story, beautifully written by Dan Barry, with superb visuals by Haruka Sakaguchi.

And yet the air of inevitability bugs me. Barry offers nostalgia, not hope. I’m not going to suggest that Brandt quit and start his own local news project — he’s in his 50s, has a kid in college and his wife his sick. But why doesn’t the community get together, start a news project and make Brandt the first hire?

Better yet: Why can’t LNP, the newspaper in nearby Lancaster, which is independently owned and reportedly doing well, hire Brandt for a Pottstown edition? Lancaster is probably a bit too far away to justify firing up the printing presses and the trucks. But a digital edition wouldn’t cost much, and would allow them to expand their paid subscription base — much as The Boston Globe did in Rhode Island.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Margaret Sullivan has written a useful guide to the horrifying decline of local news

What’s happened to local news in our medium-size city north of Boston is a story that could be told in hundreds of communities across the country.

Read the rest at Nieman Lab. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Contrary to buzz in the newsroom, Linda Henry says: ‘The Globe is not for sale’

Are John and Linda Henry looking to sell The Boston Globe? Folks in the newsroom have been wondering in recent weeks. But according to Linda Henry, the paper’s managing director, the answer is no.

Henry hosted a Zoom town hall for Globe employees earlier today. Among the questions she was asked, according to a source, was whether the departure of Boston Globe Media president Vinay Mehra last week was related to a possible sale. I contacted her a short time later, and she replied via email:

The question [at the town hall] was if Vinay’s departure had anything to do with our ownership status, which it absolutely doesn’t. This doesn’t affect our thinking or what we have said about stewarding this great institution. The Globe is not for sale, I’m pretty sure you would have picked up on if it was.

The idea that a sale might be under consideration gained steam recently when Sarah Betancourt reported reported in CommonWealth Magazine that — according to the Boston Newspaper Guild — the Henrys were “apparently insisting on the removal of a provision in the existing contract that would keep the contract terms intact if the newspaper is sold.” Management and the Guild have been enmeshed in acrimonious contract talks for quite some time.

Yet in most respects the Globe seems to be doing well, although its status as a profitable business probably came a sudden halt when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and advertising nosedived. The paper went over the long-hoped-for 200,000 mark in digital subscriptions recently, and hiring continues. Just today, editorial-page editor Bina Venkataraman announced that Kimberly Atkins would be leaving WBUR Radio and joining the opinion section as a Washington-based senior writer.

Editor Brian McGrory also announced ambitious plans just last week to improve the diversity of the Globe’s hiring, promotions and coverage.

Two years ago, John Henry responded to similar talk of a sale by saying: “I don’t think of selling any local assets during my lifetime. Linda and I love and are committed to this city.”

It sounds like that hasn’t changed.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

The Globe, the Red Sox and a long-ago story of racism and sexual abuse

Now here’s an interesting media twist. Michael Rezendes, who did so much to expose Cardinal Bernard Law’s involvement in the Catholic Church’s pedophile-priest crisis when he was a member of the Spotlight Team at The Boston Globe, has written a new report about sexual abuse — this one involving the Red Sox, whose principal owner, John Henry, is also the owner of the Globe.

Rezendes, who’s retired from the Globe, now works for The Associated Press. His story was published on the Globe’s website today at 3:40 a.m. and presumably will be in Wednesday’s print edition.

The report is about former Red Sox clubhouse manager Don Fitzpatrick, who for years preyed on young Black clubhouse employees. Fitzpatrick left the Sox in 1991 — 10 years before Henry bought the team — and pleaded guilty to charges of sexual battery in 2002.

Although Fitzpatrick was long gone before the dawn of the Henry era, the team remains entangled in Fitzpatrick’s web. Victims are seeking compensation, suggesting that it’s hypocritical for the Red Sox to come to terms publicly with their history of racism (some of it pretty recent) while failing to reach out to Fitzpatrick’s victims.

One of Fitzpatrick’s alleged victims, Gerald Armstrong, told Rezendes, “Now would be a good time for the Red Sox to show everyone they mean what they say.”

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Globe editor Brian McGrory addresses diversity in the newsroom and in coverage

This past Wednesday, Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory sent a long memo to his staff about steps the Globe will take to respond to issues of race and equity — both in the paper’s coverage and the diversity of its newsroom.

So far, at least, the Globe has been able to avoid the sort of public turmoil over race that the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, among other news organizations, have experienced. But the Globe has long suffered from a lack of people of color in leadership positions. The last ranking Black editor, Greg Moore, left for The Denver Post in 2002 several months after losing out on the top position to Marty Baron. (The Globe’s opinion pages are led by Bina Venkataraman, who is Indian American.)

A couple of other points. First, although McGrory sent this out on Wednesday, no one leaked it to me until late Thursday. I don’t know the outcome of the Thursday presentation McGrory refers to. If someone at the Globe would like to send something along, I’d love to see it. I’d consider publishing an anonymous report as long as I knew who it was from.

Second, toward the end McGrory mentions wanting the Globe to adopt what amounts to a “right to be forgotten” for people who’ve been charged or even convicted of minor crimes. This sounds like an excellent idea as long as news stories aren’t going to be deleted from the archives.

Before the web, print editions soon disappeared into microfilm collections that were virtually impossible to search, which meant that the sort of minor incidents McGrory is referring to could not be easily found by, say, prospective employers. We need some way of returning to those days of semi-privacy without destroying the historical record.

What follows is the full text of McGrory’s memo.

Updates and plans

Hey all,

We’ll start with a request: Everyone should do everything possible to attend Thursday’s presentation of the company’s inclusion council. You’ve received an invitation under separate cover for an 11 a.m. Zoom call. The group will share findings and insights that may be hard to hear, but are vitally important to know, so I’d urge you all to participate.

Beyond that, we agreed at our town meeting a few weeks back that discussions about race, even and especially discussions involving deeply uncomfortable truths, are utterly vital. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to have had a good number of one-on-one conversations and small group discussions with people in the room, all of which have been eye-opening to the point of being invaluable. While all these exchanges are important, they are but a start. The real marker of this moment will be the actions that we take. So here, I’d like to outline some of the plans for the newsroom going forward. They are not the final word. They are a starting point, something that will ideally serve as our foundation for durable progress.

Recent assignments

In terms of our coverage, some key assignments have already been made and are worth sharing with you now. We launched a criminal justice team to look at the underlying racism in law enforcement that has served as the tipping point in the protests and calls for action. About two weeks old, it’s already had remarkable impact with stories on outrageously high overtime payments and ballooning payrolls, police officers on the streets despite numerous civilian complaints, a T officer who quietly resigned after abusing a homeless man, the acquisition by Boston Police of more miltary-style equipment, and clear-eyed looks at the push to defund. There is much more on the way. That team includes Milton Valencia, Vernal Coleman, Evan Allen, Tonya Alanez, Andrew Ryan, and Evan Allen, with strong assists from Dugan Arnett, Laura Crimaldi, and Danny McDonald. It’s led by Brendan McCarthy and Nestor Ramos, in a pitch-perfect example of cross-department collaboration. We are past time giving Boston Police and other law enforcement the scrutiny they warrant; this team is already addressing that.

If we focus only on criminal justice, we have failed in our mission to address core issues of racial inequality in and around Boston, one of the most unequal places on the planet. This, as we’ve discussed for years, should be a part of everyone’s beat, whether you cover the environment, the arts, sports, transportation, retail, or real estate. It’s especially vital in primary education, where society blithely accepts systems that are profoundly unequal. We have a strong education team already in place. Naomi Martin will join it, and the indefatigable Felicia Gans will also play a pivotal role ramping up the digital presence as part of her broader portfolio. Felice Belman will now help editor Sarah Carr with oversight.

In addition, we’ve asked Deanna Pan, Zoe Greenberg, Dasia Moore, and Jenee Osterheldt to focus a good part of their time and creative energy on broader racial and social injustice issues, including that wide space where race and COVID collide. And our business staff will remain focused on the epic economic injustices that are prevalent in this region.

Before, during, and after the recent town meeting, many colleagues have been forthright and generous with their insights and ideas. Not surprisingly, they’ve been really thoughtful — and really appreciated. Many of the plans below are pulled from these conversations, discussions with senior editors, and feedback from smaller groups. Again, there should and will be more to come.

• Cover the neighborhoods of color in and around Boston with more intensity — the culture, the economics, the challenges, the triumphs, the people, while also looking at broader stories about city life. We would assign at least one but likely more reporters to it, with strong editing guidance. We would also look for partnerships and innovative ways to get information to residents.

• Promote and/or hire Black editors and other editors of color to significant roles, including, but by no means limited to, the masthead. This is of paramount importance.

• Require a staff-wide work audit for racial representation. Each reporter, photographer, columnist, producer, and editor will be given the necessary time to look back six months and assess their work through a racial lens — how many people of color were subjects, how many were quoted as experts, how many were depicted in photographs and videos, and in what fashion?
Likewise, we’ll go through home pages and print section fronts, as well as the magazine, to see how often and in what ways we depicted Black people and other people of color.

This exercise is not meant to embarrass or penalize anyone. It’s to learn from our own work and create awareness of what we need to do. We’ll figure out a meaningful way to share the broader results.

Meantime, it is of the utmost importance for everyone to include a diverse range of voices in stories and to develop sources who don’t look like you. Jenee has worked up a strong list of Black sources to share, with an assist from Adrian [Walker] and Yvonne Abraham, to help people get started.

• We’ve had important success hiring star journalists of color over the past couple of years, but we are nowhere near where we want or need to be. We’ll redouble our efforts to make the newsroom more diverse, with a dual focus on retention and hiring.

• Make sure we dedicate the right resources to cover law enforcement agencies as a key part of our regular and ongoing coverage.

Internal changes

• Reframe our summer internship program, beginning in 2021, to a diversity internship and training program in which all participants will be students or recent graduates of color.

• Mandate that a specific proportion of our co-ops are students of color.

• Work with the Guild to amend the newsroom’s ethics policy to allow for participation in Black Lives Matter rallies by staffers.

• Form a newsroom advisory council to weigh in on coverage and initiatives that involve race issues.

• Explore outside funding for a training program for early-career journalists of color, in partnership with universities, nonprofits, and possibly other news organizations. This program would allow for the hiring of journalists for a predetermined tenure at the Globe involving intensive training, mentorship, and meaningful work while they are here.

One more

• Launch a ‘right to forget’ initiative that allows people to appeal their presence in a story from the Globe archives and ask for it to be de-linked from search engines. This includes, but is not limited to, someone charged and even convicted of non-violent crimes. Our journalism was never meant to be a permanent obstacle to someone’s success, with the worst decisions and moments in regular people’s lives accessible by a few keystrokes for the rest of time. This will be a complicated endeavor, involving a small committee and imperfect judgments, but it will be worthwhile.

There will undoubtedly be additional measures. And we will also be working closely in the newsroom with ReadySet, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting firm that has been smartly engaged by the Globe’s inclusion council to help the entire organization.

As tends to happen in this business, we find ourselves at the intersection of opportunity and responsibility. It’s on all of us to make the most of it and to have the strongest impact, meaning we have much work to do in the weeks ahead.

Please keep reaching out with your thoughts, insights, and ideas.

Brian

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Boston Globe Media president Vinay Mehra is leaving

Vinay Mehra. Photo via LinkedIn.

Vinay Mehra, president of Boston Globe Media Partners, is leaving after three years at the helm, according to an announcement to employees by managing director Linda Henry late this afternoon.

No idea of what prompted this, but I wonder if Mehra’s departure might help break the logjam between the Boston Newspaper Guild and management, which are bogged down in protracted contract negotiations.

Then, too, the union has raised the prospect that John and Linda Henry are interested in selling the Globe, according to a recent story by Sarah Betancourt of CommonWealth Magazine. It seems unlikely, but who knows?

What follows is Linda Henry’s message, a copy of which was provided to me by a trusted source a little while ago.

After three years with us, today is Vinay Mehra’s last day with Boston Globe Media Partners.

We are grateful for his work in helping to stabilize and grow our remarkable organization and are especially thankful to him for building an incredibly strong and effective Senior Leadership Team. This team is well-positioned to lead our organization and to continue the important work of ensuring that our institution continues to serve our community and our mission for years to come.

We wish Vinay the best of luck in his next venture.

Linda Henry

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Baron was right to stop Woodward from exposing Kavanaugh’s duplicity

Bob Woodward. Photo (cc) 2010 by Miguel Ariel Contreras Drake-McLaughlin.

There is a lot to chew over in Ben Smith’s deep dive into The Washington Post, which — like news (and non-news) organizations everywhere — is struggling with issues of diversity. But let me keep the focus narrow here, because Smith leads with a blockbuster anecdote about something that unfolded during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 2018. Smith writes in The New York Times:

Bob Woodward, the Post legend who protected the identity of his Watergate source, Deep Throat, for 30 years, was going to unmask one of his own confidential sources. He was, in particular, going to disclose that Judge Kavanaugh had been an anonymous source in his 1999 book “Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate.”

Mr. Woodward was planning to expose Mr. Kavanaugh because the judge had publicly denied — in a huffy letter in 1999 to The Post — an account about Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton that he had himself, confidentially, provided to Mr. Woodward for his book. (Mr. Kavanaugh served as a lawyer on Mr. Starr’s team.)

What Kavanaugh allegedly did pretty much defines one of the circumstances under which a reporter might consider exposing an anonymous source: he told the truth (apparently) to Woodward and then lied about it in public. And the stakes were high, as Woodward’s story, if published, could have presented yet another obstacle to Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

But executive editor Marty Baron intervened, according to Smith: “Mr. Baron and other editors persuaded Mr. Woodward that it would be bad for The Post and ‘bad for Bob’ to disclose a source, one of the journalists told me. The piece never ran.”

Among those siding with Baron is Matt Storin, his predecessor as editor of The Boston Globe, where Baron served for nearly more than a decade before moving to the Post. “I’m not in a position to render judgment on a lot of this piece, but @PostBaron absolutely did the right thing on the Woodward issue, supporting any reporter in the future who needs an anonymous source,” Storin tweeted.

I agree with Storin — and, thus, with Baron. Unless Woodward promised Kavanaugh he’d keep his identity confidential only if he subsequently told the truth in public about their exchange, then Woodward had no business breaking their agreement. It’s a tough call, and the fact that someone of Woodward’s stature wanted to go the other way shows that good people can differ on this. But Woodward, pressured by Baron, ultimately did the right thing.

It’s not like Kavanaugh is the first source to tell a reporter one thing in confidence and then say something else publicly. It’s happened to me, and I’m sure most reporters would tell you the same thing. But that’s one of the risks you take when grant anonymity to someone.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Trust is down, subscriptions are up — and the demand for objective news is falling

The COVID-19 pandemic has given a boost to trusted sources of news such as television and online mainstream outlets, but has battered print newspapers for the simple reason that people find it harder to get their hands on them while on lockdown. And though paid digital subscriptions are on the rise, that may be driving a demand for coverage that’s more in line with readers’ political views.

Those are some of the findings of the 2020 Digital News Report, an annual study of news-consumption habits compiled by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Oxford.

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

Wall St. Journal’s newsroom calls out opinion section over Pence’s COVID falsehoods

The Wall Street Journal’s excellent newsroom is calling out its often-nutty opinion section. The Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus reports that an op-ed by Vice President Mike Pence earlier this week in which he praised the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 had some, uh, problems:

Mr. Pence wrote that as of June 12, Project Airbridge had delivered more than 143 million N95 masks, 598 million surgical and procedural masks, 20 million eye and face shields, 265 million gowns and coveralls and 14 billion gloves.

According to FEMA data, through June 18 the program had delivered 1.5 million N95 masks, 113.4 million surgical masks, 2.5 million face shields, 50.9 million gowns, 1.4 million coveralls and 937 million gloves. The total number of those supplies is about 7% — or one-thirteenth — of the numbers cited in Mr. Pence’s article.

We talked about the Journal’s decision to publish Pence’s dubious propaganda Friday on “Beat the Press” (above). At the time, I thought the problem was more a matter of absurdly optimistic spin in the face of rising infection rates in many states rather than factual inaccuracies. I may be been giving Pence too much credit.

I still think Sen. Tom Cotton’s recently op-ed in The New York Times was worse, since he falsely claimed antifa involvement in Black Lives Matter protests in order to justify military attacks on Americans.

Talk about this post on Facebook.