Those of us who were with Bruce Springsteen from the beginning (or, in my case, almost from the beginning) have certain expectations for how he should behave. One of those expectations is that he should not charge $850 so that well-heeled fans can see him on Broadway. That said, I was looking forward to watching “Springsteen on Broadway” on Netflix, which I finally had a chance to do Sunday night.
It’s very good, and moving in parts. Springsteen is a master storyteller, and he expertly wove the story of his life around his music. The flashes of ego won’t be surprising to anyone who’s read or listened to his excellent autobiography, “Born to Run.” And, after all, he can back it up.
Since I had already heard him read his autobiography for many, many hours, “Springsteen on Broadway” was somewhat superfluous. Most of the rearrangements of his songs were second-rate, although “My Hometown” (on solo piano) and “Land of Hope and Dreams” (on acoustic guitar) were far better than the originals.
My only quibble is that he struck the same somber, elegiac tone for two and a half hours, with no variation in the pacing — not even when his wife, Patti Scailfa, joined him on stage. (And how weird is it that they sang “Brilliant Disguise,” which is about his troubled first marriage?) About two hours in, I was more than ready for the E Street Band to come out and launch into the Detroit Medley.
I’d give “Springsteen on Broadway” four out of five stars, of interest mainly to Springsteen obsessives.
The ongoing struggles of Boston’s two daily newspapers. What Facebook should do about falsehood-spreading hatemongers like Alex Jones. The FCC’s latest assault on truth, justice, and the American way. And, of course, our 21st annual roundup of outrages against free speech.
With 2018 entering its final days, I thought I’d look back at what I wrote during the past 12 months. Unlike last year, I’m not going with my 10 most-read columns. Instead, I’ve chosen 10 columns that address a range of different issues, presented here in chronological order.
1. Standing up to presidential power — in 1971 (Jan. 17). With President Trump regularly attacking journalists as “enemies of the people” and purveyors of #fakenews, what could have been more welcome than a feel-good movie about the last time the press confronted an out-of-control president? “The Post,” directed by Steven Spielberg, told the tale of The Washington Post’s desperate struggle to catch up with The New York Times, which had beaten them in publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War. By agreeing with executive editor Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks) that the Post should go all in, publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) established the Post as a great national newspaper — and paved the way for its later coverage of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately destroyed Richard Nixon’s presidency.
2. The Boston Herald’s new budget-slashing owner (Feb. 14). When previous Herald publisher Pat Purcell took the tabloid into bankruptcy in late 2017, it was supposed to end in a prearranged sale to GateHouse Media, a hedge-fund-owned chain of newspapers known for its cost-cutting. Instead, another hedge-fund-owned chain with an even worse reputation, Digital First Media, swooped in late in the process and bought the Herald for a reported $11.9 million. The Herald has been decimated by Digital First, although the journalists who are still there continue to do good work. How bad did it get? Recently, Herald editor Joe Sciacca was made the editor of seven daily papers and several weeklies in Massachusetts and upstate New York. No doubt Sciacca will do the best he can. But it’s an absurd situation created by owners who clearly don’t care.
3. The 2018 New England Muzzle Awards (July 3). Since 1998, I’ve been writing a Fourth of July roundup of enemies of free speech, first for The Boston Phoenix, and since 2013 for WGBH News. (My friend Harvey Silverglate, a prominent civil-liberties lawyer, writes a separate story on censorship at New England’s colleges and universities.) This year’s Muzzles were especially eclectic, featuring not just bogeymen of the right like President Trump and former White House communications chief Anthony Scaramucci but also former president Barack Obama and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a progressive favorite. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. As the late, great defender of the First Amendment Nat Hentoff memorably put it (quoting a friend), “Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second.”
4. Boston Globe owner John Henry expresses his frustrations (July 25). Five years into his announcement that he would buy the Globe, I conducted an email Q&A with the billionaire financier, who is also the principal owner of the Red Sox. And though Henry insisted that he planned to hold onto the Globe “during my lifetime,” he said he was frustrated with the paper’s ongoing losses and failure “to meet budgets.” Cuts were made in the newsroom and elsewhere throughout the fall. The situation reached a public impasse just recently, when the Boston Newspaper Guild, which represents the Globe’s editorial employees as well as many on the business side, denounced management for bringing in the “union-busting” law firm Jones Day. The Columbia Journalism Review has described the firm as “notorious for aggressive anti-union tactics that journalists and union leaders say have helped downgrade media union contracts and carve employee benefits to the bone.” See more here, including a statement from Henry this week that the Globe is now “profitable.”
5. Remembering John McCain (Aug. 27). On the occasion of Sen. McCain’s death, I republished a story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix in February 2000, when I followed McCain and George W. Bush around South Carolina as they campaigned in that state’s Republican primary. Bush defeated McCain and went on to win the presidency. I think I had more fun reporting this story than just about any other I can remember. Regardless of what you thought of his politics, Sen. McCain was a great American and a raconteur who enjoyed sparring with the press. Unfortunately, he seems like an anachronism in the poisonous, hyper-polarized atmosphere of 2018.
6. Alex Jones and the privatization of free speech (Sept. 27). Two cheers for Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms for deleting Jones’ accounts. He’s not just a right-wing conspiracy theorist; he spouts falsehoods that put actual people in real danger, including the Sandy Hook families and the parents of murder victim Seth Rich. But what have we given up when we’ve turned over our First Amendment rights to giant corporations with their own interests and agendas? Social media has become the new public square. And the public has no say in how it’s governed. These days we are all rethinking our relationship with Facebook. We need some sort of public alternative.
7. Our undemocratic system of government (Oct. 10). When the founders wrote the Constitution, they gave us a republic, believing that the will of the majority should be reflected by and tempered through the wisdom of men of their own social and intellectual class. What they did not believe was that the minority should govern the majority — but that’s what we have today. Thanks to a system that favors smaller states, Republicans control the presidency, the Senate, and the Supreme Court despite being supported by far fewer voters than their Democratic opponents. Reform is long overdue.
8. What ails local journalism? (Nov. 12). Probably my favorite topic, and one I’ve turned to on several occasions during the past few years. I decided to highlight this particular column because I used it to concentrate not on the familiar supply side of the crisis (greedy corporate newspaper owners, a diminishing ad market, and technological changes) but on the demand side. In other words, do people really care enough about what is going on in their local communities? And if they don’t, how can local news organizations survive? We need a crash course in civic literacy. After all, you can’t get people interested in news about what’s taking place in city hall unless they understand why it matters.
9. The FCC targets community access TV (Nov. 28). Having already destroyed net neutrality despite an outpouring of public protest, the FCC is now going after a vital source of information at the local level: community access television, the folks who bring you city council meetings, school concerts, and DIY news reports. Under a rule change proposed by the telecommunications industry, local cable providers would be able to deduct the cost of funding public access from the fees they pay to cities and towns. As Susan Fleischmann, executive director of Cambridge Community Television, told me, “This is like a taxpayer saying to the city, ‘I am clearing my sidewalk of snow and keeping the leaves out of the storm drains, and I have also decided to take care of the trees in front of my house. So, I am counting this against the real estate taxes that I owe.’” U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, among others, is trying to protect funding for local access, but FCC chair Ajit Pai has shown little inclination to act in the public interest.
10. My evening with Rachel and Sean (Dec. 6). With news about the Mueller investigation reaching one of its periodic crescendos, I decided to spend an evening watching the two top-rated cable news programs: Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC and Sean Hannity’s on Fox News. And though I found the liberal Maddow to be considerably more respectful of actual facts than Hannity, a conspiracy-minded Trump sycophant, I came away thinking that both are contributing to the polarization that is tearing us apart. In nearly 40 years we’ve gone from “And that’s the way it is” to “And here’s the way we will reinforce your pre-existing prejudices.” What a loss.
Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2019.
A source just sent along this end-of-the-year message from Vinay Mehra, the president and chief financial officer of Boston Globe Media Partners. It follows publisher John Henry’s statement earlier this week that the Globe is now profitable and is likely to remain in the black next year as well.
The main takeaways here are that the Globe, having passed the crucial 100,000 mark for paid digital subscriptions several months ago, is now closing in on 110,000. Globe executives have said that if they can hit 200,000 then the paper may be able to achieve long-term sustainability. Also of interest: The Globe is taking part in a three-month exercise with Harvard Business School “to define our business strategy.”
What’s missing: Any mention of the Globe’s contentious negotiations with the Boston Newspaper Guild, including management’s decision to bring in what the Guild has described as a “union-busting” law firm. One hopes that Mehra and the Henrys understand that the people who produce what he describes as “the many successes our journalism racked up this year” should be treated fairly.
The full text of Mehra’s message follows.
As we head into the holiday season, on behalf of [managing partner] Linda [Henry] and myself, I want to take a moment to share with you a few highlights of what we have achieved this year as well as an outline what we hope to achieve in 2019.
Our success in 2018 was no accident. It was a tough year that required a lot of work and I am pleased to say our efforts began to pay off. We started, of course, with powerful journalism across all our brands — The Boston Globe, STAT and Boston.com. On top of that, we found areas of real growth, while we aggressively targeted savings across all facets of our business and carefully managed expenses to stay ahead of the structural declines we are all seeing in our industry. For the first time in a long time, we are ending the year in black, and to remain there we must continue our vigilance in looking for efficiencies.
But financial results are just one measure of the many successes our journalism racked up this year. There are way too many to list here, so I’ll mention just a few:
Spotlight was a Pulitzer finalist for its groundbreaking series in December  on race issues in Boston that inspired a region-wide discussion that has no precedent
Our coverage of the State Police overtime fraud investigations, the Columbia gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley, the investigative pieces on Massachusetts secret courts and the TSA’s Quiet Skies program drove accountability and change
The stories in STAT about IBM-Watson’s troubled health business led to a major leadership change at the company
We also extended the reach of our journalism by expanding into new platforms:
The Aaron Hernandez Spotlight series in the Globe resulted in a podcast with over 4 million downloads, a trip to number 1 on the Apple charts, and considerable interest from Hollywood
Last Seen, a true crime podcast examining the most valuable and confounding art heist in history from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, hit over 3.4 million downloads and was in the top 10 on iTunes
Season one of the Love Letters podcast launched earlier this year when Meredith took on the hardest question she gets: How do I get over it? Leveraging its success, season two will launch in early 2019
As incomparably talented as our journalists are, they don’t do it alone. Peel back the curtain, and what’s revealed is you … our employees across all departments of BGMP [Boston Globe Media Partners]. Day in and day out, your coordinated efforts — leveraging your relationships, expertise, passion and creativity are what have made this institution a leader in an industry that is starting to find its footing.
For growth on the digital side to be sustainable, we must remain focused, bold, and daring, and in 2018, we had no shortages of examples:
We continued our digital growth, ending the year with close to 110,000 digital-only subscribers for the Boston Globe — more digital subscribers than almost any other major metropolitan news organization
We invested in a new digital content management system, Arc, and launched a new mobile app for the Boston Globe, another step in our digital transformation
STAT doubled down on coverage of life sciences, pharma and biotech, resulting in record revenue and subscriber growth
We launched a new section on cannabis dedicated to covering and facilitating conversations around the politics, business, use and impact of cannabis in the Northeast
Our events brought the community together to talk about important issues such as race, the future of work, the future of democracy, and the midterm elections
Impressive commercial results and remarkable engagement of our readers to our stories are not the only things that drive us. Being a leader in the news industry comes with responsibility. We take that role seriously and demonstrated it in August, when our editorial board led a coordinated effort that resulted in 450 newsrooms across the country joining us to defend the freedom of the press against harmful rhetoric labeling the press as “the enemy of the people.”
As important as it is to drive these conversations in the community, it’s important for us as an organization to reflect on how we can live up to what we shed a light on. One example was the Race Series, which prompted a degree of self-reflection. Leadership on diversity and inclusion starts at the top, so we have made an intentional effort to ensure our executive team represents a broad range of backgrounds. We will continue to move through our practices in recruiting, talent assessment, and measuring the leadership of this organization against a few core guiding principles, one of which is related to creating an environment that nurtures inclusion, and compensation goals will be tied to this important measure.
It’s not lost on me that there are many questions about the future of our business and our strategy. This past month, a cross-functional team of more than 30 leaders across all disciplines of our organization met with me and a team from Harvard Business School to begin a 3-month exercise to define our business strategy. We all left very encouraged and I will have more to share as we move forward.
As we reflect on a transformative and eventful year, the reality is this: when the business had been experiencing double-digit declines we didn’t dig a hole and hide, we invested — in new business models, new technologies, new talent. We didn’t lose faith. We continued to produce quality journalism, launch new products, and provide opportunities to convene our community around important issues.
All of us know that people who choose to spend their lives in the news business are special, they’re unique, and they are undeniably passionate about their work. This isn’t simply a job, it’s a mission — a mission motivated by our love of informing people. And that’s precisely what makes me so proud to work alongside each and every one of you.
We wish you and your loved ones a happy, restful and safe holiday and I look forward to seeing you in 2019.
Here’s an unexpected development: The Boston Globe, which has been losing money more often than not for years, is now turning a profit, according to publisher and owner John Henry.
“The Globe may have turned the corner finally due to management, increasingly relevant journalism, continuing strategic investment and by becoming much more efficient in all areas,” Henry said Tuesday night in response to an email query. He added: “I don’t know how long it has been … since the Globe had a profitable year but we will this year and probably next as well. As our digital growth continues the sustainability of a vibrant Boston Globe is coming into view. It’s been a long time coming.”
What prompted my email was buzz coming out of the Globe newsroom that management had claimed the paper was running in the black. It struck me as unlikely, but Henry has now confirmed it, although he did not respond to my request for some actual numbers.
The good news comes at a moment when Henry and his management team have taken an aggressive stance in contract negotiations with the Boston Newspaper Guild, the union that represents the Globe’s editorial employees and many on the business side as well. The Guild recently issued a statement denouncing management for hiring the “union-busting” law firm Jones Day, described by the Columbia Journalism Review as “notorious for aggressive anti-union tactics that journalists and union leaders say have helped downgrade media union contracts and carve employee benefits to the bone.”
I asked Henry if he was concerned that hardball tactics with the union could result in a loss of goodwill with his employees and the public. As you’ll see below, he did not answer directly. But it doesn’t seem like a good look to crack down on the union at a time when its members’ sacrifices have helped Henry balance the books. That said, negotiations often get ugly. That doesn’t mean the talks can’t be resolved on terms both sides can live with.
Henry, a billionaire financier who is also the principal owner of the Red Sox, has long lamented the Globe’s declining fortunes and the dismal state of the newspaper industry in the five years since he bought the paper from the New York Times Co. When I interviewed Henry in early 2016 for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” he said he expected to lose money both that year and the following year. “You look at the Globe — we have about $300 million a year in income and we can’t make money,” he said. “The cost of making money is high.” (Earlier this year the Boston Business Journal estimated that revenues for 2018 would range from $225 million to $250 million.)
This past July, Henry told me in an email interview for WGBH News that the losses were continuing. “The Globe cannot ever seem to meet budgets — on either the revenue side or the expense side and I am not going to continue that,” he said. “This has always been about sustainability rather than sizable, endless, annual losses. That is frustrating and due to a combination of mismanagement and a tough industry.”
Since that time, management, headed by president and chief financial officer Vinay Mehra, has cut spending on both the news and business sides. It seems to have worked, although news coverage and customer service have taken a hit. Throughout the news business, of course, revenues continue to decline. But there is reason for some optimism with the Globe. Several months ago it passed the 100,000 mark for digital subscribers, an important milestone. Globe officials have said the paper could approach financial viability if they can reach 200,000. Needless to say, that’s a lofty goal.
The full text of Henry’s email follows.
The Globe may have turned the corner finally due to management, increasingly relevant journalism, continuing strategic investment and by becoming much more efficient in all areas.
There has also been a focus on getting costs and practices closer to industry standards of major newspapers. This is something the Globe was never able to do. And this is what I believe management is continuing to do in its negotiations with the guild presently.
We want the strongest possible newsroom in the future. Much as sports teams are dependent on the talent of those who take the field every day, the Globe depends on a talented newsroom and editorial page that hopefully has the tools they need to be successful. So ultimately I believe management and the guild will find common ground in a very challenging environment for newspapers where your very survival is dependent on doing the right things day-to-day.
Both have the same overriding objectives — to provide our community with vital, serious journalism.
I don’t know how long it has been, Dan, since the Globe had a profitable year but we will this year and probably next as well. As our digital growth continues the sustainability of a vibrant Boston Globe is coming into view. It’s been a long time coming.
Even the most public-spirited wealthy media owners are not perfect. Jeff Bezos has revived The Washington Post, but working conditions — though not as bad as those in, say, an Amazon warehouse — are hardly as good as they could be at a news organization that is reportedly growing and profitable. John Henry, frustrated by ongoing losses at The Boston Globe, has hired a union-busting law firm in an attempt to bring costs into line — as if that’s going to make for a better, more financially sustainable Globe.
But you’d have to go a long, long way to find an owner as awful as Philip Anschutz, who last week killed The Weekly Standard, reportedly so that he could raid its subscriber list and use it to pump up his Washington Examiner.
The Standard, a political magazine founded in the mid-1990s, has been a leading voice of #NeverTrump conservatism. The Examiner is considerably more pro-Trump. Anschutz is entitled to go full #MAGA, of course. But according to John Podhoretz, one of the Standard’s co-founders, Anschutz actually stood in the way of a possible sale because he wanted the Standard dead and gone lest it compete with the Examiner. Podhoretz writes:
That this is an entirely hostile act is proved by the fact that he and Anschutz have refused to sell the Standard because they want to claim its circulation for another property of theirs. This is without precedent in my experience in publishing, and I’ve been a family observer of and active participant in the magazine business for half a century.
Podhoretz was understandably so filled with rage that he either forgot or refused to name who “he” is. But I assume he’s referring to Anschutz henchman Ryan McKibben, who pulled the trigger last Friday.
As I argued on “Beat the Press” on Friday (above), political magazines like the Standard, National Review, The New Republic and The Nation have never made money. Rather, they have depended on wealthy owners to subsidize them. The losses are relatively small because the magazines themselves are shoestring operations.
The Standard didn’t die because it was losing money — it was supposed to lose money. Instead, as Podhoretz writes, it was murdered.
This just in: Sounds like some major strife between Boston Globe management and the Boston Newspaper Guild, the union that represents the Globe’s newsroom employees as well as many on the business side.
Globe management’s hardline stance will be the subject of Emily Rooney’s rant tonight on “Beat the Press” (WGBH-TV, Channel 2) at 7 p.m. The full text of the union’s message follows. The video should be up on our YouTube channel later this evening.
During negotiations for a new contract with the Guild, the company has presented a ridiculous and draconian proposal that would strip away essential protections and provisions in the contract like overtime, seniority, pay scales, job descriptions, severance as well as limit the time and scope of issues members can grieve and arbitrate, and more. The paltry offer of 2 percent raises, an increase to 401k and paid parental leave (by reducing sick time for everyone) is frankly insulting. We are offended by their offer and we know many of you are too.
We’ve told them as much, now they need to hear it from you.
To show our disgust with their offer and our unity in fighting for a fair contract, we’re asking all members to wear your bright red BNG T-shirts on Tuesday. If you’re out of the office, drape it over your desk chair. After Tuesday, keep your shirts visible around the office.
If you don’t have a T-shirt already let us know and we’ll get you one by Monday. Boxes are on their way to State Street and Taunton so we can hand them out.
Also, please follow and stay tuned to the Guild’s Twitter and Facebook accounts.
This is just a first step. More actions are being planned and we’ll send you information about those soon.
We need to show the company their proposal is unacceptable.
BNG Negotiating Committee & BNG Action Committee
In just a few years, #fakenews has moved to the top of what we worry about when we worry about the news media.
Recently the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, based at Harvard’s Kennedy School, released a report seeking to document efforts to fight fake news, from Facebook, Google, and Twitter to academic institutions, from entrepreneurial start-ups to nonprofit foundations. The report, titled “The Fight Against Disinformation in the U.S.: A Landscape Analysis,” was written by Heidi Radford Legg, a journalist who is the director of special projects at Shorenstein, and Joe Kerwin, a Harvard senior.
“Trust in news has fallen dramatically and the rise in polarizing content, created to look like news, is being driven by both profiteers and malevolent players,” Radford Legg and Kerwin write. “Add to this a president that undercuts the credibility of the press on a daily basis and who has declared the press as an ‘enemy of the people.’ American journalism, already shouldering practically non-existent revenue models that have led to the decimation of quality local news, is in deep defense.” (Disclosure: My work is briefly cited in the report.)
What follows is a lightly edited email interview that I conducted with Radford Legg.
Dan Kennedy: You’ve provided a comprehensive overview of efforts to fight disinformation. What is the main takeaway? How do you hope your paper will be used?
Heidi Radford Legg: When I arrived at the Shorenstein Center, as a journalist trained to give context to a situation and who had long worked in upstart or for-profit media, I was fascinated by all the people in academia and in the foundation world who were stepping up to solve this existential crisis for our society. It became immediately clear to me that this was the story. Here was Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, which essentially disrupted the newspaper classified revenue stream, giving $70 million to journalism and the fight against disinformation.
As an entrepreneurial journalist, having founded TheEditorial.com, I was all about disruption and innovation. However, we are now in this acute moment when a deluge of disinformation and misinformation plagues our information ecosystem — exponentially, thanks to this digital age. Local news revenue is being decimated, platforms are absorbing all of the attention economy dollars, and rogue players are penetrating our information pipeline. It is the perfect storm.
Thankfully, a few bold leaders have stepped in to try to put some guard rails in place while we wait for the platforms to self-regulate or be regulated. My hope is that this paper will inspire other funders and civic leaders to get involved, because the effects of disinformation and the breakdown of traditional journalism models are quickly eroding the ability to have an informed citizenry in our democracy.
Radford Legg: I wonder if Postman might think he was too cheeky about the whole thing and should have warned us more desperately — the same way climate change advocates worry we are being too apathetic about the dire risks of climate change today. I will say, it is hard not to see that we are dumbing down as a society, with our attention span reduced to nanoseconds. I know some digital experts disagree with me and think we are at a point of great societal leaps with artificial intelligence. I am not there. I would take basic education on civics and critical thinking for all Americans, and an informed citizenry, at this point. Computer code is still binary. It is based on “this equals that.” While transformative and our future, I still believe in the ethical fortitude of the human when taught critical thinking and empathy.
Kennedy: Your section on how Facebook is fighting misinformation is appropriately skeptical, yet I sense that you accept the company’s assurances that it’s sincere about its efforts. I’m wondering if your views have changed since you finished writing this report given the never-ending stream of bad news coming out of the Zuckerborg. Siva Vaidhyanathan argues in his book “Antisocial Media” that Facebook can’t be fixed because it’s working the way it was designed to work. What do you think?
Radford Legg: I tried to stay unbiased in the reporting to list actual measures being taken by platforms at the time of the writing of this paper. I had two terrific Harvard student interns this summer, Joe Kerwin and Grace Greason, who spent hours tracking the media reports on measures the platforms were taking. We would compare the PR version to news articles by Wired, BuzzFeed, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Harvard’s Nieman Lab. You will remember that from April to August, there was a mad flurry of deplatforming of Facebook sites, scourging of Twitter accounts, and general clean-up by the social media giants — who likely knew they were being asked to testify in front of Congress in September. Our research leads up to the moment Twitter’s Jack Dorsey finally booted Alex Jones and Infowars off the site. We tried to stick to the facts.
I do think the platforms are taking steps, but what I would really like them to address is that they are now news organizations. Rather than media entertainment companies, they need to accept that they are owning the news, and it is time they begin to hire journalists and editors with a small percentage of the insane profits they reap in this new Attention Economy. This revenue, in the form of advertising fees, was what once funded local newsrooms, and that breakdown is part of the problem.
The Shorenstein Center’s Platform Accountability Project, IDLab, and Media Manipulation Case Studies Project are all working together to create a body of research and knowledge that will put pressure on the platforms and educate Congress on what is happening in the space. One way for people to join the effort is to fund our research at the Shorenstein Center. Our goal is to be at the intersection of media and politics and help inform legislation and policy around this urgent problem as we lead up to another Presidential election in 2020.
Kennedy: You describe an impressive set of initiatives by Google to help news organizations find their way toward financial sustainability and to keep disinformation out of its search results. Ultimately, though, I wonder if what Google really needs to do is work out a system of paying for the news content that it uses. I realize that’s probably outside the purview of your study, but do you have any thoughts on that?
Radford Legg: I write in the study that “one part of Google’s effort funds journalism while the other builds tools to sell back to them. Its approach is equal parts philanthropy and capitalism. Google’s tagline makes its intent clear: ‘To help journalism thrive in a digital age.’” The question remains, for whose benefit? Ours or their bottom line? I’m hoping for the former.
What I would really like to see is for the Google News Initiative, led by Richard Gingras, to fund a number of major research projects at leading media centers like ours around revenue models for local news. The Shorenstein Center’s Elizabeth Hansen has been studying membership models like the Texas Tribune and how small and medium-sized newsrooms compete in this global digital economy. Ethan Zuckerman at the MIT Media Lab is working on a project that could share ad revenue from major platforms with the journalists or outlets that wrote a particular story. Take Flint, Michigan. The journalists who broke that story should get the largest financial gain. Today, that is not the case. Google, Facebook, and any platform or major outlet profiting from the story with clicks, should help support that local journalism.
The platforms have all the access today. Facebook alone has 2 billion users and a cash balance of $41 billion and market cap of $407 billion. Google has a cash balance of $106 billion and a market cap of $731 billion. They should start to pay and hire vetted reporters and editors steeped in the tenets of journalism — to report facts and first-person accounts. One might say it is time they grow up and be the civic leaders in the room.
Kennedy: As you note, the Berkman Klein Center has documented asymmetric polarization, which shows that consumers of right-wing media are far more susceptible to disinformation than those whose sources are more mainstream or left-leaning. What can we do about this without arousing suspicions — and anger — that we are simply seeking to impose our own liberal and elitist views?
Radford Legg: Again I go back to local news. If people who are being radicalized on the web by polarized content were instead reading about the people who live next to them and consuming news about their own city’s innovation, challenges, and progress, I believe the country would be better off and less divided. Without a trusted and reliable source on the ground in their local communities, Americans are susceptible to dogma being sold by harvesters of the Attention Economy, who are polluting the information ecosystem with untruths and content intended to polarize and divide our nation.
We should work harder to be inclusive with those in other areas of the country. As reporters, the more we can cover those stories, the better for democracy. My dream is to find paths to having journalists funded in those towns who understand the people and culture, and who can bring local back into the national conversation. This will require funding, and that is where the platforms should step up.
Kennedy: We live at a time when the president himself is our leading source of disinformation, and he has managed to convince his most committed followers that he is the ultimate source of all truth. How difficult is it to fight against disinformation in such a climate?
Radford Legg: At the Shorenstein Center’s Theodore H. White Lecture, I sat at a table with a number of our Joan Shorenstein Fellows, of whom you were one. We debated this. Should we cover the president or should we ignore him and instead cover local news and stories of progress? Should we ensure that headlines don’t repeat lies? The table was divided. But at what point do we turn away from the media circus and return to the basics? What is going on in your city hall? What ideas are changing the way you live and work in your city, town, state? What can we as a nation learn from what is going on in Corning, New York, or Beaufort, North Carolina, Portland, Oregon or Maine, or McLean County, Kentucky? I am a local kid. I think that is where the lifeblood of a democracy lives.
Kennedy: Is there any hope?
Radford Legg: Always.
Today, given the dire state of revenue models for local news, we need the wealthiest and most influential to fund and promote the research and innovation experiments desperately needed today in local journalism, and we need everyone who believes in journalism to get involved, vote, and help bridge the polarization. The late Gerry Lenfest’s legacy gift in Philadelphia is a case study many of us are watching in local news. He put the fabled Philadelphia Inquirer and sister properties into a trust and endowed it with $20 million. That’s commitment to local and that is hope. Let’s hope it inspires more of the same.
“If your mother says she loves you, check it out” has to be the most ignored of all journalistic truisms. I recently ran across this gem from Nat Hentoff’s 1992 book “Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee”:
For the past 20 years, I’ve had the privilege of being part of something that has grown into a Boston institution: “Beat the Press,” a weekly media-criticism show on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) launched by Emily Rooney in 1998.
On Friday night we celebrated with a half-hour retrospective followed by a Q&A on Facebook Live. It was an honor to be part of it. And it was great to see Emily get the credit she’s due both for conceiving of the show and for maintaining its excellence during the past two decades.
There are so many people who are part of the show, and I know that if I start listing them, I’ll leave out others who are just as deserving. You know who you are. I’m filled with appreciation and gratitude for all of you.