How FCC ownership regulations helped shape the Boston media landscape

Photo (cc) 2008 by Dan Kennedy

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously upheld a 2017 ruling by the FCC to loosen media ownership regulations, including an end to the so-called cross-ownership ban. That ban prohibits one entity from owning a newspaper and a TV or radio station in the same market.

The FCC’s long, tortured history on cross-ownership shaped the Boston media scene from the 1950s through the ’80s. Although the ban wasn’t formalized until 1975, the FCC had much to say about the issue well before that. No one told the story better than John Aloysius Farrell in his 2001 book “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century,” which I wrote about for The Boston Phoenix.

It’s a pretty amazing tale, and it’s crucial if you want to understand how the dynamic between The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald played out over the course of those decades. The very short version: the Boston Herald Traveler, with the support of the Kennedys, obtained the license to Channel 5 in the 1950s through corrupt means. The Globe, with the help of O’Neill, then a young congressman, exposed that corruption. That, in turn, led to the Herald’s losing the license to Channel 5 in the early 1970s, thus cementing the Globe’s status as the city’s dominant daily newspaper.

The final act played out in the late 1980s when Rupert Murdoch, who then owned the Herald, bought Channel 25 and sought a waiver from the FCC that would have allowed him to keep both. Sen. Ted Kennedy slipped an amendment into a bill that made it virtually impossible for the FCC to grant such a waiver. Several years later Murdoch sold the Herald to Pat Purcell, a longtime lieutenant. Although the Herald enjoyed a few years of prosperity under Purcell, it eventually entered a long, slow decline, ending in bankruptcy and the sale to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital in 2018.

So now that the cross-ownership ban is gone, what’s next? A number of organizations, including the media-reform group Free Press, opposed the FCC’s move, arguing that it will make it more difficult for local groups, including those representing women and people of color, to acquire media outlets. I agree, although there’s also a case to be made that newspapers and, to some extent, broadcast media are so moribund that ownership regulations are more about the last century than this one.

It does seem likely to me that we’re going to see newsrooms that combine newspaper and broadcast operations in an attempt to save money. We’ll see less diversity and less coverage as a result. But given that virtually all media have shifted to the unregulated internet, the ultimate effect of such consolidation is yet to be determined.

A leading media ethicist picks up the pieces of the David Brooks story

Edward Wasserman. Photo (cc) 2019 by the Knight Foundation.

The controversy over New York Times columnist and “PBS NewsHour” commentator David Brooks’ conflicts of interest has all but faded away. But before everyone just, you know, moves on, I’d like to share with you a new blog post by Edward Wasserman, former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and one of the country’s leading media ethicists. If you’ve forgotten the backstory, Wasserman has recapitulated it for you.

Wasserman begins with the valuable observation that conflicts tend to arise at the opposite ends of the economic spectrum — low-paid journalists caught in the realities of a shrinking news business have to take on outside work, meaning that “every story we read may be an audition for future work (or a thank-you for past employment), and we’re left to wonder how single-minded the writer’s commitment to us can be.” Or, for that matter, they might have an incentive to write nice things about McDonald’s. That, at least is understandable.

On the Brooksian end of the spectrum, though, the corruption is much more clear. Wasserman writes:

Star journalists cash in on notoriety from their day jobs, and the lead commentator for a prestige publication who moonlights on cable TV can make tens of thousands to speak at a trade association confab or corporate retreat. That’s a powerful incentive to pick subjects and grind axes that sharpen the journalist’s brand — which again raises the question, when we read their work, of who else they’re working for.

Another important point Wasserman makes is that the full disclosure Brooks failed to provide until he was caught by BuzzFeed News is no substitute for avoiding the conflict in the first place. Now, I’m among a younger (not that young) generation of media critics influenced by New York University Jay Rosen, which means that I tend to favor full disclosure without worrying quite as much about conflicts as earlier generations did.

But it’s hard to disagree with Wasserman when he writes: “Disclosure can never cleanse work of its bias; it can only alert readers to the possibility that bias exists and dare them to find it.” I would differ with Wasserman on his use of the word “bias.” Of course Brooks is biased. He’s an opinion journalist. But Brooks does owe us his independence, and he compromised that through his entanglements with Facebook and the Bezos family, among others.

I’m not sure whether Brooks could have survived this if he hadn’t apparently disclosed his conflicts to his previous editors (though not to readers or viewers). In any case, he’s still standing, and though he can drive me crazy sometimes, I agree with Wasserman that he is “a lucid and humane writer.” I’d miss him if he were gone. But I don’t know that I’ll ever trust him again — and there were already reasons to approach Brooks’ work with tweezers and a pair of rubber gloves.

Brooks has undermined trust in the Times, the “NewsHour” and himself. I guess the calculation is that he still has value; otherwise, he’d be gone. But he’s definitely moved himself to the discount rack, perhaps permanently.

Previous coverage.

How the COVID pandemic hypercharged Stat

Illustration (cc) 2020 by Prachatai

Luke Winkie has a terrific piece up at the Nieman Journalism Lab about the five-years-in-the-making overnight success of Stat, the health- and life-sciences site that’s part of Boston Globe Media.

The newly unionized Stat was designed as a niche site at is launch in 2015, which I wrote about for GBH News. Now the project is growing by leaps and bounds — from 1.5 million unique visitors a month in 2019 to 23 million, and, more recently, back to around 7 million. Stat has about 50 employees, which is about the same as when it started, though up slightly over its pre-pandemic head count. And it’s looking to hire another 20. Executive editor Rick Berke tells Winkie:

Stat has changed forever after last year. As a media company, we were on a good trajectory before the pandemic. But there’s no going back to the pre-pandemic reach that we had.

About that libel suit against Fox

Dominion’s libel suit against Fox seems pretty solid given that it was the company’s own hosts, not just their guests, who were spreading false information. And if they actually believed what they were saying — the key to an “actual malice” defense — surely their bosses knew better.

The Globe’s Stat goes union

Some pretty big news from the Boston Newspaper Guild: “Dozens” of journalists at Stat, the health- and life-sciences digital news organization that’s part of Boston Globe Media Partners, are becoming part of the union.

Stat was started in 2015, and its non-union status has been a source of tension, at least among some Globe staffers, right from the beginning — especially since Stat journalism often gets carried in the Globe.

The news comes after a year in which Stat really came into its own as a nationally respected source of information about the COVID epidemic. The full text of the press release from the Guild follows.

Journalists at Award-Winning STAT Are Joining The Boston Newspaper Guild

The Boston Newspaper Guild welcomes dozens of STAT media company employees operating in bureaus nationwide and overseas to the union representing workers at New England’s largest newspaper

BOSTON – Dozens of journalists from the award-winning STAT media company will be joining The Boston Newspaper Guild (BNG), the union which represents more than 300 Boston Globe employees, union representatives announced today.

“Becoming part of the Guild matters when it comes to things like job security, wages, and protection in the event ownership changes. This is a really exciting moment for us,” said STAT reporter Damian Garde. “I’m looking forward to collaborating on critical issues like securing better health insurance and other key benefits.”

“Having STAT workers become part of the Guild means a stronger voice. We all work within the structure of the Boston Globe Media Partners and we stand united,” said Guild President Scott Steeves, a publication layout designer at The Globe since 1984. “At a time when independent journalism is so important, Guild members strive to deliver the highest-quality news product possible while also standing together to ensure economic and workplace protections. Our members fight for good working conditions, fair treatment by management, and equitable opportunities when it comes to career advancement.”

STAT is a media company focused on finding and telling compelling stories about health, medicine, and scientific discovery. STAT is produced by Boston Globe Media and headquartered in Boston, but has bureaus and journalists in Washington, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Cleveland. It was created by Globe Media owner John Henry.

STAT employs some of the best-sourced science, health, and biotech journalists in the country, as well as motion graphics artists and data visualization specialists.

Despite the skill and talent they contribute, these employees lack robust representation at work, an inequity that will be remedied with their inclusion in the Guild. With the rapid changes in media organizations, and increased corporatization of the news industry, the ability to advocate and speak out at work is essential.

BNG represents The Globe’s reporters, editors, page designers, web producers, advertising salespeople and advertising sales support persons, ad-designers, circulation managers, accountants, marketers, and information technology specialists, security guards, shippers/receivers, nurses, and secretaries. For decades, its members have produced Pulitzer Prize-winning, nationally-acclaimed work, as well as safeguarding the rights and benefits of Globe employees.

The STAT announcement takes place amid ongoing concern about Globe management’s handling of New England’s largest newspaper and its treatment of employees, who have been working for more than two years without a new contract. For months, Globe management has pushed to take away long-standing workplace protections and benefits. The Globe has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to retain the services of Jones Day, a law firm known for using questionable tactics to break media company unions.

“The work accomplished by the reporters at STAT over the past year was nothing short of extraordinary,” said business reporter and Guild member Janelle Nanos. “They helped drive the national coverage of the pandemic and in so doing, helped shape the conversations about how best to protect the nation. We at the Guild think it’s obvious that they should be afforded the same workplace protections as the Globe newsroom staff.”

“Our union will represent all workers who work as part of Boston Globe Media Partners in order to ensure everyone receives fair compensation for their work, while also improving transparency around employee benefits and building a culture that reflects the diversity, values, and strength of its workers,” said Guild recording secretary and reporter Matt Rocheleau. “STAT workers deserve a collective voice and seat at the table, together we can start collaborating and negotiating for a more equitable workplace.”

The post-Trump media slump extends well beyond cable news

Donald Trump in 2016. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

As Donald Trump prepared to leave office last January, a lot of us wondered if the “Trump effect” — the boost in viewership and readership that accompanied his train wreck of a presidency — would disappear with it.

As I wrote for GBH News in January, “Trump outrage has provided elite newspapers, cable news stations and other prominent outlets with a jolt they hadn’t seen since the internet began eating away at their audience and revenue several decades earlier. But now it’s coming to an end.”

Now some early returns are available and it seems that, yes indeed, media consumption is down substantially, tracking with the decline in presidential outrages, COVID infection rates and economic uncertainty. According to Paul Farhi of The Washington Post, cable news viewership has tanked, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But so has everything else.

The double-flip in cable viewership is especially striking. During the post-election period — the endless lies and futile court battles, culminating in the violent insurrection of Jan. 6 — CNN pulled out to a substantial lead over its rivals, Fox News and MSNBC, representing the first time in many years that Fox had been anything other than No. 1. Now, Farhi reports, ratings at CNN and MSNBC have cratered, putting Fox back in the lead — not because it’s gaining viewers but because it’s lost fewer of them.

Farhi writes:

It’s unlikely that media executives expected the furious demand for news in 2020 and early 2021 would last indefinitely. That period was one of the most momentous in living memory, encompassing the onset of a pandemic, the nearly instantaneous collapse of national and global economies, a wave of racial justice protests, and a U.S. presidential election that culminated in an insurrection and impeachment trial. All of it drove people to their TVs, laptops and phones in horror and fascination.

As Farhi notes, the post-Trump slump has affected broadcast news and newspapers as well. The New York Times and The Washington Post were especially prosperous during the Trump era, yet traffic to their websites is down substantially since Inauguration Day.

Tom Jones of Poynter puts it this way:

After four years of the Trump Show, maybe boring is a welcome feeling for media consumers. Maybe it’s a good thing to go a day or two or three not knowing exactly what the president said or did that day. Maybe after four years of stress, some people are taking a break from the news.

I thought I would do a spot-check of how widespread the decline in news consumption is and whether it extends down to the regional level. In order to do that, I used SimilarWeb, an open platform that provides some approximation of web traffic. My list comprised The New York Times, The Washington Post and four regional papers of varying sizes: The Boston Globe, The Berkshire Eagle, the Portland Press Herald and, just to get outside of New England, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. All of them are independently owned.

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In every instance, SimilarWeb reported that the papers’ February numbers were their lowest in six months. The Times dropped from 705 million total visits in November to 366 million in February. The Post hit peaks of 297 million in November and 294 in January before slumping to 178 million in February. (“Total visits” is a different measure from the industry standard of unique visitors per month, which is not available from SimilarWeb unless you pay extra.) The regional figures tell the same story:

  • The Boston Globe: 11.6 million total visits in January; 8.5 million in February.
  • The Berkshire Eagle: 680,000 total visits in January; 510,000 in February.
  • The Portland Press Herald: 2.5 million total visits in November, followed by a steady decline to 1.35 million in February.
  • The Star Tribune: 14.7 million total visits in November, sliding to 11.4 million in February.

Is there any good news in these numbers? Maybe not — but there is an opportunity. News organizations are no longer as obsessed as they once were with gross traffic numbers, since drive-by visitors can’t be monetized. The main reason that newspapers want to attract a wide audience is so that some small percentage can be converted into paying customers. And all of these papers have had some measure of success in signing up paid digital subscribers, the Times and the Post spectacularly so.

Of course, let’s hope that there are no news developments that will start driving media consumption once again. After a long lull, probably related to the pandemic, we’ve had two mass shootings in two weeks. It would be terrible for all of us if a return to gun violence is what it takes to offset the Trump slump. A further caveat: Presidential elections always drive news consumption. Maybe when we look at these numbers again a few months from now, we’ll see that what’s happening now isn’t that unusual.

The way to sign up and retain subscribers is by offering quality, essential journalism, not by publishing clickbait that might bring in a large audience for one story. But to sound a further note of caution, a decline in paid subscriptions would be a trailing indicator — an overall drop in web traffic shows up immediately, while non-renewals play out over many months.

This is a time when we’ll see whether publishers who are truly committed to building their business can work on strategies to attract new paid subscribers and keep the ones they’ve already got. The optimist in me says that readers who’ve already handed over their credit-card information are exactly the ones who understand that news doesn’t begin and end with Donald J. Trump.

Still more on The Emancipator

Ben Smith of The New York Times weighs in on The Emancipator, the antiracist digital publication that will be launched later this year by The Boston Globe’s opinion section and Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research.

Of note: Former Globe reporter Wesley Lowery, who later clashed with now-retired Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron over his use of social media, may be coming back.

As Smith describes it, The Emancipator will have a seven-figure budget and will blend “reportage, opinion and academic research, some of which will appear in The Globe.” Founders Bina Venkataraman, the Globe’s opinion editor, and Ibram X. Kendi, who runs the Antiracist Center, say they also want to “revive the tradition of a generation of media that predates the formal division of news and opinion in 20th-century American journalism.”

Well, that’s fine. I’m sure they know that any number of quality magazines already do that. It was a hallmark of the alternative press as well. Not to say it isn’t a good idea, but there are contemporary models they can look to.

We also talked about The Emancipator on “Beat the Press” last Friday. The video is above.

An anonymous source steps forth and saves (most of) The Washington Post’s bacon

Photo (cc) 2005 by Shawn Zamechek

The danger in reporting a story based on anonymous sources — in this case, one anonymous source — is that if you later are proven wrong, you’re left twisting in the wind with no one to blame but yourself.

It is highly unusual for a source to emerge from hiding and deliver a semi-exoneration. So The Washington Post got lucky Tuesday when Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state in Georgia who was the anonymous source for a Post story that resulted in an embarrassing correction, went on the record and said the Post got the story more or less right after all.

In case you missed it, the Post had to correct a story by Amy Gardner reporting that Trump had called Georgia’s chief elections investigator, Frances Watson, and urged her to “find the fraud” and that she would be a “national hero” if she overturned the results of the presidential election in her state. A tape of the call emerged recently, and The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s quotes were somewhat less provocative than that. Wemple writes:

In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Fuchs said, “I believe the story accurately reflected the investigator’s interpretation of the call. The only mistake here was in the direct quotes, and they should have been more of a summary.” Fuchs said that The Post disclosed her role in the story with her permission, and that she’d gotten the debriefing from the investigator — a direct report of hers — “shortly” after the call from Trump concluded.

“I think it’s pretty absurd for anybody to suggest that the president wasn’t urging the investigator to ‘find the fraud,’” Fuchs added, “These are quotes that [Watson] told me at the time.”

To be clear, what we’re talking about here is a secondary story — a follow-up to a more explosive report by Gardner about Trump’s call to Georgia Secretary of State Georgia Brad Raffensperger in which he demanded that Raffensperger find enough votes to reverse the results. There was audio of that call, published on the Post’s website.

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So, a close call for the Post — but lessons to be learned that really shouldn’t have to be stated. You don’t use quotes from a single anonymous source, especially when that source may have been second-hand. If you’re absolutely confident of your reporting, treat those quotes as a “summary,” as Fuchs suggested, rather than using quotation marks.

And understand that in this hypercharged political environment, you will be accused of making up fake news about Trump if you don’t get it 100% right. In this case, 95% isn’t good enough.

The Globe pays tribute to a classic New York Post headline. It didn’t quite work.

The Boston Globe today published an editorial admonishing the state for directing COVID relief to restaurants that have violated pandemic rules — including a strip club in Springfield that has run afoul of the FBI. When it came time to write the headline, though, someone decided to have some fun — and that’s where things went awry.

We begin with the inspiration for the Globe’s headline, the classic New York Post headline “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” so famous that when the editor who wrote it, Vincent Musetto, died in 2015, his genius was celebrated far and wide.

The Globe print headline: “Heedless bodies in topless bar.” Huh? Not quite sure that gets at it.

Click on it, though, and you get “Heedless bounty in topless bar,” which I’m guessing is what was intended.

The online headline, “State needs to hurry up with restaurant aid,” is serviceable but lacks panache.

So credit to the Globe for taking some chances. But I’m not sure it quite worked.

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Amazon outrage of the week

From The Washington Post’s Geoffrey Fowler:

The tech giant … won’t sell downloadable versions of its more than 10,000 e-books or tens of thousands of audiobooks to libraries. That’s right, for a decade, the company that killed bookstores has been starving the reading institution that cares for kids, the needy and the curious. And that’s turned into a mission-critical problem during a pandemic that cut off physical access to libraries and left a lot of people unable to afford books on their own.

And good for the Post, which, as we all know, is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.