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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Some thoughts on those 3,000 lost journalism jobs

The news was shocking. On Monday, Gerry Smith of Bloomberg reported that about 3,000 employees at news organizations have lost their jobs through layoffs or buyouts through the first five months of this year — the worst drop since 2009.

There is nothing good to be said about this. But, in looking over the details, it seems to me that things aren’t quite as bad as they first appear.

First, there is that “worst since 2009” claim. For the first five months of 2009, Smith writes, the job loss came to 7,914 — more than double what we’ve seen this year. Of course, that was in the midst of the Great Recession, a time when the structural problems facing the news business were compounded by economic collapse. The New York Times Co. was even threatening to shut down The Boston Globe, which it then owned. In 2019, journalism job losses have accelerated in the midst of prosperity, which is pretty ominous. Still, things are not nearly as bad as they were 10 years ago.

Second, a large share of those 3,000 lost jobs were at digital-only news organizations whose business model has always been dubious. The Bloomberg story puts the number of lost jobs at 800 at HuffPost and Yahoo and another 250 at BuzzFeed News. Todd Spangler reported for Variety earlier this year that Vice Media had eliminated 250 jobs. So that’s a total of 1,300, or more than 43 percent of the 3,000 lost jobs. Obviously I don’t like to see any jobs eliminated, and I especially don’t like the fact that Facebook’s and Google’s ongoing dominance in digital advertising is crushing free news sites. But in these cases, the job losses should mainly be seen as the day of reckoning finally arriving.

That’s good news — or, rather, the not-so-awful news. The bad news is that many of the other job losses involve local news organizations. Many are owned by gigantic corporate chains such as GateHouse Media, MediaNews Enterprises (formerly Digital First), Gannett and McClatchy, all of which have cut numerous jobs this year. Some are independents, such as The Vindicator of Youngstown, Ohio, which, as Joshua Benton notes at Nieman Lab, couldn’t even find a buyer. Via Brian Stelter, I learned this morning that the weekly Katy Times of Texas will go out of business, too.

As I and others have written on multiple occasions, the real crisis in journalism is at the community level. This week’s Bloomberg numbers are sobering, but it’s important to keep in mind what they say and what they don’t say.

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Despite Trump fatigue, the horror of child detention breaks through our apathy

President Trump has worn us down. The Mueller report — loaded with evidence that Trump obstructed justice and welcomed Russian interference in the 2016 campaign — bobs, floats, and then sinks beneath the surface. A credible accusation that he raped a woman several decades ago barely registers. Dangerous rhetoric that journalists are “the enemy of the people,” once shocking, is now little more than background noise.

Sometimes, though, the terrible reality of the Trump presidency breaks through, at least for a moment. Such is the case with the hundreds of migrant children being held at a border detention center in Clint, Texas, under conditions of shocking cruelty, according to a group of lawyers that visited the camp. The children are reported to be cold, hungry, and filthy. Many are sick.

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End of the line for ‘The Take’

Sue O’Connell

No, we really can’t have nice things. Sue O’Connell, the host of “The Take” on New England Cable News, has announced that her show is being taken off the air at the end of this week. Meanwhile, she just won a “Best of Boston” award from Boston magazine for her “stellar guests, tough but noncombative questions, and a real interest in talking about ideas.”

No word on what NECN has in mind, but “The Take,” under various names, has been around pretty much since the founding of the all-news cable channel in the early 1990s. Previous hosts include RD Sahl, Chet Curtis and Jim Braude, now host of “Greater Boston” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) and co-host of “Boston Public Radio” on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM).

Sue, a former colleague of mine at The Boston Phoenix as well as the current co-publisher of Bay Windows and the South End News, is a great talent. I hope she moves on to something bigger and better.

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Proposed state commission would study the local news crisis and what to do about it

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy

Can government play a role in helping to solve the local news crisis? Not directly, perhaps. But indirectly, government can shine a light on the issue, call attention to worthy projects that might inspire others, and offer some policy recommendations.

That’s the goal of House Bill 181/Senate Bill 80, which would create a special commission to study local journalism in underserved Massachusetts communities. Sponsored by Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and Sen. Brendan Crighton, D-Lynn, the bill was the subject of a public hearing Tuesday before the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses.

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Hearing on bill to create local news panel to be held at the Statehouse at 11 a.m. today

Big doings at the Statehouse later today as the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Businesses will conduct a hearing about H.181, a bill to create a special commission that would study local journalism in underserved communities.

The hearing will take place at 11 a.m. in Room B-1. I’ll be among those testifying in favor.

This nearly got derailed yesterday over complaints that the hearing had been scheduled on short notice. Fortunately, the chairs of the committee agreed to hold a second hearing within a few weeks.

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Danny Schechter’s legacy and the passion of Julian Assange

Danny Schechter in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy.

The news was disorienting: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whose alleged misdeeds range from sexual assault to acting as a Russian intelligence asset, would be honored with an award named after the late Danny Schechter, one of my journalistic role models.

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Federal bill would ease the way for nonprofit local news

A bill filed by U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif., would make it easier for “written news organizations” to claim nonprofit status, “allowing them to focus on content instead of profit margins and reduce their tax burden.”

The bill, H.R. 3126, has been endorsed by the News Media Alliance, the National Newspaper Association, the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, the California News Publishers Association, Free Press Action and the Open Markets Institute.

Nonprofit news is nothing new — organizations ranging from public media to hyperlocal community websites have nonprofit status. Donors are able to write off contributions, and the news organizations themselves are exempt from most taxes.

But it’s not easy. Back in 2013, I wrote that the IRS had virtually stopped granting 501(c)(3) nonprofit status to startup news organizations as it wrestled with the question of whether journalism was among the educational activities envisioned under the tax code.

Though it’s my understanding that the agency has loosened up since then, questions remain. For instance, The Salt Lake Tribune recently announced that it would seek nonprofit status, which would make it the first regional newspaper to do so. Writing at the Nieman Lab, though, Christine Schmidt and Joshua Benton wondered whether the Tribune would run into trouble for its coverage of professional sports and the restaurant scene, which would appear to fall outside the IRS guidelines.

On the other hand, Paul Bass, the founder of the New Haven Independent, a 13-year-old nonprofit news project, told me recently that the only guidance he ever received was that the Independent could not endorse political candidates or lobby the government.

Presumably DeSaulnier’s bill will help clear up those issues. And a personal note: I played a very small role in crafting the legislation. DeSaulnier and I discussed his ideas last fall, and I suggested to his office — unsuccessfully — that the bill not be restricted to “written” forms of journalism.

The legislation is one of two stories in the news right now about the future of local journalism. The other is a proposal by the newspaper industry to suspend antitrust laws so that they may negotiate collectively with social media platforms in an attempt to obtain payment for the use of their content.

The News Media Alliance, the newspaper business’ principal lobbying group, released a study this week claiming that Google and Facebook made $4.7 billion in 2018 through its uncompensated use of material that originally was published on newspaper websites.

You can read the full text of Rep. DeSaulnier’s bill to encourage nonprofit journalism by clicking here. The text of his office’s press release is below.

June 6, 2019 | Press Release

Washington, DC – Today, Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11) announced the introduction of the Saving Local News Act (H.R. 3126), a bill to recognize newspapers as a public good and make it easier for written news organizations to become non-profits – allowing them to focus on content instead of profit margins and reduce their tax burden. The bill is supported by the News Media Alliance, the National Newspaper Association, the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, the California News Publishers Association, Free Press Action, and the Open Markets Institute.

“Local journalism has been a bedrock of American society for over 200 years. I remember when dedicated reporters sat in the front row of city council meetings to keep communities informed and to increase accountability. Today many local newspapers are dying out – penny pinching until they close or are bought up and sold off piecemeal by hedge funds. This bill would allow papers to renew their focus on quality content and flourish unencumbered by ever-increasing demands for greater profits,” said Congressman DeSaulnier.

“We commend Congressman DeSaulnier for introducing this important piece of legislation that recognizes the importance of nonprofit journalism to the American society. At a time when news deserts are a growing concern, we must ensure that we support all newsrooms in their efforts to provide high-quality journalism to their local communities. This journalism bill that would allow non-profit newsrooms to treat advertising revenue as nontaxable income could be helpful to a number of publishers,” said David Chavern, President and CEO, News Media Alliance.

“News organizations today must explore a wide array of avenues for sustainability, one of them being non-profit status. But the federal law lays many trip wires along this path, including the way advertising is taxed. The non-profit route could be attractive for some newspapers if and only if Congress recognizes that even a non-profit newspaper still needs good revenue sources. This proposal by Congressman DeSaulnier will open up new possibilities for sustaining quality journalism in American communities. We appreciate the concept and, even more, we welcome the interest from an important member of Congress in helping newspapers that are at risk to survive,” said Andrew Johnson, President, National Newspaper Association.

“This legislation carries the promise of helping news outlets large and small, in big cities and small towns, throughout the country. It will allow for innovation into new models of journalism and carries significant potential to address the growing problem of ‘news deserts’ around the country where the for-profit model is not sustainable,” said Angie Muhs, President, Associated Press Media Editors.

“The nonprofit model of journalism may well be one viable future of journalism, at least where smaller publications are involved. This is a constant topic of discussion among our membership which is why our organization welcomes this legislation as a means of increasing the likelihood that those who choose can convert themselves to non-profit status, while maintaining a strong journalistic enterprise,” said Molly Willmott, President, Association of Alternative Newsmedia.

“At a time when editors around the country continue to see newsrooms shrink in the face of financial constraints, we welcome every avenue to greater revenue. This legislation offers significant assistance that will allow news organizations to survive without constraining their actual journalism in any way,” said Nancy Barnes, President, American Society of News Editors.

“Community newspapers are woven into the fabric of American society and provide accurate and trusted information that improves the lives of individuals in the communities they serve. It is no secret that newspapers face an increasing number of existential threats from online competitors which have left them with a decreasing number of revenue opportunities. This measure would provide news organizations with the means to better rise to these challenges and continue to play a vital role in their communities by holding the feet of the powerful to the fire and giving voice to the powerless,” said Jim Ewert, General Counsel, California News Publishers Association.

Since 2017, estimated daily newspaper circulation fell 11 percent from the previous year (Pew Research Center). Congressman DeSaulnier recently established a working group of dedicated Members of Congress from areas affected by a drought of high-quality journalism. Together they have been working to highlight this crisis and bring attention to the need to promote local journalism, including by holding a Special Order on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and introducing the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (H.R. 2054), a bill to create a temporary safe harbor from anti-trust laws to allow news organizations to join together to negotiate with dominant online platforms to get a fair share of advertising profits.

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The New York Times undermines its own story mocking Trump’s Mexico deal

It looks like this front-page New York Times story that has drawn so much attention is almost a complete botch. Headlined “Mexico Agreed to Take Border Actions Months Before Trump Announced Tariff Deal,” the premise is that President Trump got nothing out of his tariff standoff and subsequent agreement with Mexico to increase border security. Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman write:

The deal to avert tariffs that President Trump announced with great fanfare on Friday night consists largely of actions that Mexico had already promised to take in prior discussions with the United States over the past several months, according to officials from both countries who are familiar with the negotiations.

The story goes into considerable detail in an attempt to show that there’s nothing new about the U.S.-Mexico agreement, and that Trump is boasting about it solely as  face-saving gesture.

But wait! Inside the paper, under the headline “Mexico Sets Domestic Priorities Aside to Meet Terms of U.S. Trade Deal,” Azam Ahmed reports that Mexico is going to considerable lengths to meet the terms of Trump’s demands in an effort to head off those tariffs. Ahmed writes:

Under an agreement hammered out in marathon negotiations with American officials over the last few days, Mexico agreed to send up to 6,000 National Guard troops to its southern border with Guatemala. It also agreed to allow more asylum applicants to wait in Mexico while their cases are pending in the United States.

Further down in the story, there’s this:

But as Mr. Trump’s hectoring of Mexico on migration has increased, so, too, has the willingness of the López Obrador administration to take measures to calm its northern neighbor.

After initially saying the Remain in Mexico program was a pilot, Mexican officials quickly expanded it to new cities. Now, as part of the deal on Friday, they have agreed to expand it across the entire border.

Hat tip to Daniel Radosh of “The Daily Show,” who tweeted this out on Saturday:

And yes, indeed, one of them has to be incorrect. Given the level of detail in the second story, I’d say it’s the front-page splash that needs correcting.

If nothing else, this ought to quiet those on the left who’ve been accusing Haberman of being in the tank for Trump.

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Future shock for GateHouse as it lays off journalists and merges its smaller papers

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

In his book “The Inevitable,” the technology journalist Kevin Kelly writes, “The future happens very slowly and then all at once.” That seems like as good a description as any of what’s going on at GateHouse Media, the nationwide chain that owns more than 100 newspapers in Greater Boston. After years of gradual contraction, the company is suddenly laying off journalists by the dozens and merging its smaller weeklies. In fact, you might say the future has arrived as quickly as one, two, three:

1. On May 23, word began to trickle out that massive layoffs were taking place at GateHouse papers around the country. A crowdsourced spreadsheet showed that two local dailies, The Providence Journal and Worcester’s Telegram & Gazette, were especially hard hit, losing about six journalists each (the Worcester numbers include Worcester Magazine, another GateHouse title). All told, the newspaper analyst Ken Doctor wrote for Nieman Lab, it looked like about 200 people would lose their jobs, offset slightly by the addition of 30 investigative and regional positions.

2. On May 30, The Wall Street Journal reported that the giant Gannett chain, best known for publishing USA Today, had held merger talks with GateHouse after earlier fending off a hostile acquisition attempt by MNG Enterprises, the hedge fund-owned group formerly known as Digital First Media. As I wrote earlier this year, Gannett is a slightly better steward of local journalism than MNG, although it has decimated properties such as Vermont’s Burlington Free Press.

3. The next day, on May 31, I obtained a confidential memo from GateHouse New England executives informing the troops that 50 of the company’s Greater Boston weeklies would be merged into 18. Although the memo said there would be no reduction in coverage, venerable titles such as the Danvers Herald and the Ipswich Chronicle will pass into history.

In many ways it felt like the end game was at hand, even if no one knows quite what that will look like. Kirk Davis, chief executive officer of GateHouse and chief operating officer of its parent company, New Media Investment Group, expressed optimism when I contacted him, though he noted the seriousness of the situation.

“We remain positive about the future for local media but certainly acknowledge that the business model for community news is under pressure,” he said by email.

The turmoil has reached the upper echelons of GateHouse and New Media. The Boston Business Journal’s Don Seiffert reported two weeks ago that New Media’s shareholders recently rejected a compensation plan that had paid Davis $1.7 million in 2018. Share prices are down, and New Media chairman Wesley Edens has been replaced by Mike Reed, the company’s chief executive.

If the future is murky, the history is clear enough. I’ve been following the devolution of local newspapers into chain ownership for more than 25 years. I also worked briefly in 1990 for North Shore Weeklies, one of GateHouse’s predecessor regional chains. It’s a story of combining more and more newspapers in a desperate attempt to achieve economies of scale sufficient to offset the overall decline of the newspaper business. It hasn’t worked, and there is little evidence that it ever will. But it has not been for lack of trying.

Our tale begins in the 1960s, when enterprising newspaper publishers built about a half-dozen regional chains in Greater Boston. Starting in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Fidelity Capital, an arm of the investment giant, assembled many of these groups into what became Community Newspaper Co. Among the executives who passed through CNC was a young Kirk Davis, who did a stint as president and publisher.

In 2001, Fidelity cashed in by selling CNC for an estimated $150 million to Pat Purcell, then the owner and publisher of the Boston Herald. Purcell, perpetually challenged financially, turned around five years later and sold CNC to the company that would become GateHouse for a reported $225 million. At the same time GateHouse bought The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, The Enterprise of Brockton, and their associated weeklies for another $165 million. Davis had been running those papers, so the acquisition brought him back into the fold.

In 2008 I wrote about GateHouse for CommonWealth Magazine. By then Davis was president and publisher of the New England division. The company was laying off journalists, continuing a trend begun under Fidelity and Purcell. But Davis, ever upbeat, hoped GateHouse could get ahead of the curve.

“We feel that community newspapers have a very viable future and, juxtaposed against the trend overall, are performing very well,” Davis told me at that time. “I believe in it, and I believe it’s going to stay strong.”

Five years later, GateHouse went into bankruptcy, only to emerge within a few months. Since that time the company has continued to build its empire while shrinking its reporting corps.

Like many observers, I’ve been harshly critical of GateHouse’s cost-cutting measures, which in many cases have left its newspapers without the resources to meet the information needs of their communities. Newspapers in general are an endangered species. But 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.

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that there is a difference between GateHouse and, perhaps, Gannett — both of which seem to be intent on developing a long-term survival strategy — and MNG, which by all appearances is squeezing the last few drops of revenue out of its papers before walking away. (In Massachusetts, MNG, which is owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, controls the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell, and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.)

“GateHouse does try — unlike Alden, for instance — to make small investments in some sort of a future,” Ken Doctor wrote recently. “Its digital marketing and events business investments are examples.”

In our recent email exchange, Davis emphasized steps that GateHouse has taken to move toward sustainability, including the outsourcing of design functions to a facility in Austin, “constant engagement and surveys,” newsletters, audio, digital storytelling, data-based investigative reporting, and more.

“In New England,” he said, “we’ve recently added a regional engagement editor and regional newsletter editor. We’re also recruiting a New England investigations editor with a high focus on data.”

Davis also touted the adoption of the Accelerator Team Model, which, in essence, involves trying to do a better job of defining audiences as well as the priorities, teams, and plans needed to serve those audiences.

I asked Davis about GateHouse’s decision to cut The Providence Journal’s newsroom just as The Boston Globe was gearing up with a new Rhode Island initiative. His answer: “While we regret any involuntary staff reductions, the layoffs last month had a small impact on local reporting. My personal view on competitive threats is this: the more any local media can invest in covering our country’s local towns the better, whether we are there or not…. We’ll compete with and celebrate expansive efforts in local news.”

I also asked where he imagines GateHouse will be five years from now. Davis: “My belief is that our industry will be digitally proficient in all aspects of serving our communities. Certainly there will be fewer ‘print-based’ publications. Much is written about the likelihood or necessity of consolidation in our industry. We are one of the larger groups and hopefully our scale and investments can prove beneficial to our industry. Bigger isn’t better though, better is better. That’s where we need to focus — always.”

My own view is that independent, grassroots news organizations are going to show the way. It won’t be easy, and some will fail. But in New England, nonprofits such as the New Haven Independent and VT Digger as well as locally owned for-profit newspapers such as the Berkshire Eagle and the Portland Press Herald are simply doing a better job of covering their communities than GateHouse, Gannett, or MNG.

Nevertheless, it looks like GateHouse or a permutation of it will be with us for some time to come. Given the importance of local journalism to democracy, we can only hope that Davis, Reed, and company figure out a way to stop the endless bleeding and start growing again.

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