This is ostensibly a column about the Steele dossier. But it’s really a column about the media — or, rather, what we mean when we talk about “the media.”
You remember the Steele dossier, right? Just before Donald Trump’s inauguration as president in 2017, we learned that intelligence officials had briefed both Trump and outgoing President Barack Obama about a report that contained some lurid accusations. The most famous: that there was a video of Trump consorting with prostitutes in a Russian hotel room, which became known far and wide as “the pee tape.”
You may have heard that John Henry and his Fenway Sports Group are looking to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL. I spoke with Christopher Ayers of WESA Radio in Pittsburgh what Henry’s leadership style at the Red Sox and The Boston Globe might mean for the Penguins.
The final act is about to be consummated in Warren Buffett’s disappointing dalliance with the newspaper business. Despite the legendary investor’s self-professed love for newspapers, he ran the newspapers he acquired starting in 2012 as a hopeless cause rather than investing in them as his fellow billionaires Jeff Bezos did with The Washington Post and John Henry did with The Boston Globe.
Buffett eventually sold his papers — including his hometown Omaha World-Herald — to Lee Enterprises. And on Monday we learned that the predatory hedge fund Alden Global Capital is now attempting to purchase Lee’s 90 daily newspapers, which are located in 26 states. The death watch has begun.
When Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway investment company purchased 63 newspapers from the Media General chain in 2012 for $142 million, the news was greeted with the hope that the legendary octogenarian might be just the person to show the way forward. Buffett bolstered his new holdings by extending loans to those papers totaling $445 million. It was a generous gesture with which Aaron Kushner and his investors, who also wanted the papers, could not compete. A year earlier Buffett had bought his hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald, along with six other papers for $200 million. He already owned The Buffalo News. And in those pre-Bezos days, he held a substantial number of shares in The Washington Post Co. “Does Warren E. Buffett want to be a media mogul?” asked The New York Times.
Certainly Buffett had the right pedigree. Not only was he a brilliant financial thinker, but he had long loved newspapers and had been a close adviser to the Graham family at The Washington Post for many years. He even had a hand in winning a Pulitzer Prize: in 1973, when he was the owner of the Omaha Sun, he helped his reporters investigate a local charity by finding documents, providing financial analysis, and even assisting with the writing. Katharine Graham praised Buffett fulsomely in her autobiography, saying that he became a trusted confidant after he invested in the Washington Post Co. “By the spring of 1974,” she wrote, “Warren was sending me a constant flow of helpful memos with advice, and occasionally alerting me to problems of which I was unaware.”
Yet Buffett, astute financier that he is, expressed skepticism about prospects for the newspaper business after it entered its long decline. In 2009, for instance, he said he had no interest in purchasing papers, because their financial outlook was so grim. “For most newspapers in the United States, we would not buy them at any price,” he said. “They have the possibility of going to just unending losses.” And though he later reversed himself, his acquisition strategy gravitated toward papers of the type that still do reasonably well: those in medium-sized markets where the local paper is the principal source of regional and community news and where competition from the internet is less a factor than it is in large cities. Buffett’s papers carry little debt and are profitable. In the spring of 2016, though, he admitted that the picture was continuing to darken for the newspaper business and that he was no closer to finding a way out than anyone else.
“We haven’t cracked the code yet,” he told USA Today. “Circulation continues to decline at a significant pace, advertising at an even faster pace. The easy cutting has taken place. There’s no indication that anyone besides the national papers has found a way.” He added that even though all of his papers were making money (at that time he was up to 32 dailies and 47 weeklies), that might not be the case in future years. “If you have a problem in five years, you have a problem now,” he said. Buffett doubled down on those remarks in early 2017, telling CNBC that The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and possibly The Washington Post were the only newspapers he believed had an “assured future,” explaining, “They have developed an online presence that people will pay for.”
Less than two months later, the hammer came down at BH Media, the company Buffett had set up to manage his newspapers. BH Media announced the termination of 289 positions throughout the chain, including the elimination of 108 vacant jobs. The BH Media president and chief executive officer, Terry Kroeger, told the Omaha World-Herald that Buffett had been informed of the reductions but that “his opinion was not sought or offered,” in keeping with Buffett’s hands-off investment philosophy. Kroeger blamed the papers’ declining revenue on changes in retail advertising, and especially on the move to online shopping — an irony given how the most successful of the new breed of newspaper owners, Jeff Bezos, made his money. Buffett’s World-Herald did not suffer any cuts at that time. But then, in May, BH Media reduced the size of the Omaha paper and eliminated three jobs, according to a memo to the staff from the executive editor, Melissa Matczak.
For a self-confessed newspaper fan whose net worth was roughly the same as that of Bezos (more than $60 billion apiece in mid-2016), Buffett’s role in helping to figure out the future of journalism might be considered disappointingly modest. Perhaps it would be too much to expect someone in his mid-80s to dedicate himself to figuring out the future of the newspapers he had acquired. But he was ideally positioned to bring in the sorts of minds who might apply themselves to the task of saving smaller papers in much the same way that Bezos and Henry were attempting to reinvent their much larger properties. Surely Buffett understands as much as anyone that readers and advertisers will put up with an ever-diminishing paper for only so long before an irreversible downward spiral sets in.
Penelope “Penny” Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, arguably launched a movement with her path-breaking research on “news deserts” and the forces undermining community newspapers across the nation.
Abernathy, a former executive with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, was also Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina from 2008 to 2020. She talks about why this is a pivotal moment for community journalism, about her forthcoming research and about why her journalism students are still bullish on speaking truth to power at the local level.
In Quick Takes, Dan reports that the nonprofit strategy at The Salt Lake City Tribune is actually working out, and Ellen tunes us in to Heartland Signal, a new digital outlet with a Democratic spin that is setting up to cover the midterm congressional elections.
As any pizza aficionado knows, New Haven is home to the Holy Trinity of a certain type of pizza known as apizza (pronounced “a-beetz”) — thin and cooked very quickly in an ultra-hot oven, usually with charring on the bottom. Frank Pepe’s and Sally’s are in the Italian neighborhood of Wooster Square. The Modern is closer to downtown.
Despite traveling to New Haven for reporting trips on a number of occasions over the years, for some reason I had never made it to Sally’s. Well, I rectified that last Tuesday evening. I showed up around 7:30 and was told I’d have to wait about 20 minutes, which attests to the restaurant’s popularity. But then someone left, and I was seated almost immediately.
I began with a Caesar salad that arrived in a to-go package, which struck me as odd. I mean, I was right there. The dressing had not been mixed in, and it was so thick that I couldn’t really pour it — rather, it fell in glops on the romaine. The cheese was powdered rather than shaved. It wasn’t a bad salad, but I’ve had much better.
Next: The main event. I had asked for a small sausage and mushroom, but the order somehow got bollixed up and I ended up with a “medium,” which was surely enough for three people. It was an appealing-looking pie in the New Haven tradition, more oval than round, with lots of ground sausage to make up for the relative dearth of mushrooms. And it was delicious, thin and bursting with flavor.
My only criticism is personal — I like my pizza with a lot of cheese and not too much tomato sauce. What I got was a lot less cheesy than I would have liked. According to the Wiktionary, though, New Haven-style apizza is supposed to have “only a small amount of grated Parmesan cheese,” which means that Sally’s delivered the goods. By contrast, my memory of the Modern is that they’re generous with the cheese, which I recall as a zesty blend. I hope to go back in a few weeks.
My “medium” Sally’s pizza was so huge that I would have risked serious gastric distress if I’d eaten more than half. The server seemed stricken when I told him that I couldn’t take it with me since I was traveling by train. Sadly, I watched him take it away. In the interest of writing a complete review (gluttony was not the issue; oh no, not all), I ordered a cannoli pie for dessert. Like the Caesar salad, it was served in a to-go container. Unlike the salad, it was perfect.
I also ordered a glass of Sally’s red wine, served in a water glass. It was fine if unmemorable.
Overall, I’d say my trip to Sally’s was a success — although with the Modern and Pepe’s nearby, I doubt I’ll be back. The Modern remains my favorite, even though they use an oil-fired oven, unlike the coal ovens at Pepe’s and Sally’s. It almost seems like cheating, though it makes no difference to the pizza.
We’re lucky to have some great pizza places in Medford and Arlington, so I don’t feel especially deprived by not being able to go to the Modern every week. But New Haven apizza is truly something special.
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After nearly three years of increasingly fraught negotiations, the Boston Newspaper Guild and Boston Globe Media Partners have finally reached agreement on a new three-year contract. The Guild is the union that represents newsroom employees at the Globe as well as several other departments. Staff members at Boston.com and Stat News are included as well.
Don Seiffert has the details in the Boston Business Journal, reporting that about 85% of Guild members approved the contract proposal, which calls for raises, a signing bonus, a new parental-leave policy, the continuation of overtime pay and unspecified protections against outsourcing.
The Globe has been growing in recent years, as its paid digital subscription drive has led to profitability (at least before the pandemic) and new hires. William Turville wrote in the U.K.-based Press Gazette last week that digital-only subscribers have settled in at about 225,000, as the paper has retained most of those who signed up at a big discount during the height of COVID-19.
Still, there are warning signs for owners John and Linda Henry, as Seiffert notes. The contract talks grew increasingly contentious over time. In September, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey pulled out of a Globe-sponsored event in order to show their support for the union.
“There’s definitely a sour taste lingering in our mouths,” an anonymous union member told Seiffert. “I doubt any of us will trust our owners as much as we once did.”
Such feelings are understandable but can be overcome with time. The best way to do that is to put out a great newspaper.
A Globe spokesperson said the contract “provides strong protections and economic benefits for Guild members and we will immediately start working together on its implementation.”
“The Globe remains committed to journalistic excellence and a relentless focus on providing the best possible service to our region,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We will continue to invest and innovate in order to ensure that the local, independent journalism that our community has relied on for nearly 150 years will thrive and be sustainable for many years to come.”
And here’s a statement from the Guild, provided Friday night by a trusted source:
Dear Guild members,
Following the tabulation of today’s vote, we are pleased to announce that Guild membership has voted to ratify the three-year tentative contract agreement between the Boston Newspaper Guild and Boston Globe Media Partners.
Together, the two parties have reached an agreement that will benefit the approximately 300 members of the Guild while also providing the company some of the operational flexibility it desired to chart a path for the company’s future success.
As soon as the contract is officially ratified by both parties, which will happen in short order, Guild members will receive a $1,000 signing bonus and a 3 percent raise on their base salary. At the start of year two and year three of this agreement, members will receive 2 percent raises. After nearly three years of difficult negotiations, it is nice to know that our members will have some extra money coming in during the holidays.
Additionally, this agreement will help codify crucial employee rights that were at risk during many stages of these negotiations. All employees will be protected by the Guild’s powers of grievance and arbitration in matters of discipline, termination, and any attempt by the Globe to create new company policies. The Guild also ensured that strong fences have been put around the company’s ability to subcontract work to outside providers, a crucial compromise that protects the integrity of our newsroom. This agreement also retains the successors and assigns clause from our prior CBA, which means that the vast majority of Guild members will enjoy all of the rights afforded by this contract in the event that the Globe comes under new ownership.
This contract would not have been possible without the time and effort of so many of you who chose to fully engage, show up, and do the hard work required, despite the demands of your own busy lives. Through your words and actions over the last three years, we have reached an agreement that stands in stark contrast to the one we were first offered back in 2018. Over the next three years, we hope that every member will continue to stay involved and be vocal about policies you believe will create a better, stronger Boston Globe.
A pair of legal battles involving Project Veritas, a right-wing activist group known for recording its victims on hidden camera and then deceptively editing what they said, have raised a couple of dicey First Amendment issues.
The first involves FBI raids against James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, as well as against his associates. The raids were connected to the alleged theft of a diary kept by President Biden’s daughter Ashley, even though Veritas did not publish anything from the diary and ended up turning it over to law enforcement.
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As Josh Gerstein writes in Politico, the raids “are prompting alarm from some First Amendment advocates, who contend that prosecutors appear to have run roughshod over Justice Department media policies and a federal law protecting journalists.” He quotes longtime First Amendment advocate Jane Kirtley, a former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, as saying:
This is just beyond belief. I’m not a big fan of Project Veritas, but this is just over the top. I hope they get a serious reprimand from the court because I think this is just wrong.
Maybe, maybe not. Project Veritas is entitled to the protections afforded to any journalistic organization, no matter how sleazy. The question, as Gerstein observes, is whether Veritas did anything illegal in obtaining the diary.
For instance, Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden all broke the law in obtaining secret documents, and they all paid a high price for their actions. The news organizations that published those documents, though, were not prosecuted because there was no evidence they had participated in those crimes. (Julian Assange of Wikileaks is a special case. Source or publisher? Passive recipient or active participant in the theft of classified information? I’ll leave those questions aside for today.)
What we don’t know about the Project Veritas case is whether the government is claiming that O’Keefe and his crew were participants in the theft of the diary. If that’s what they’re charged with, then the First Amendment doesn’t come into play — and I suspect that’s what we’re going to find out. Absent such a claim, though, the actions of the FBI would indeed represent a grave threat to freedom of the press.
The second, and more serious, case involves a libel suit that Project Veritas filed against The New York Times. In a proceeding not directly related to the libel claim, Veritas argued that documents the Times published violated the group’s right to attorney-client privilege. That led to an extraordinary order, reported by Michael D. Grynbaum in the Times:
On Thursday, the trial court judge, Charles D. Wood of State Supreme Court in Westchester County, ordered that The Times “immediately sequester, protect and refrain” from disseminating any of the materials prepared by the Project Veritas lawyer. Furthermore, Justice Wood instructed The Times to “cease further efforts to solicit or acquire” those materials, effectively preventing the newspaper from reporting on the matter.
This is censorship — prior restraint. I’m sure Judge Wood has a law degree, but anyone who’s taken an undergraduate First Amendment course knows this is unconstitutional. Under the Near v. Minnesota standard, the government may not engage in prior restraint except in a few narrowly drawn instances: incitement to violence, serious breaches of national security and obscenity. By contrast, the reasons for restraining the Times in the Project Veritas case are trivial. Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, put it this way:
This is the first prior restraint entered against the New York Times since the Pentagon Papers, and it is an outrageous affront to the First Amendment.
Prior restraints — which are orders not to publish — are among the most serious threats to press freedom. The trial court should have never entered this order. If it doesn’t immediately vacate the prior restraint, an appellate court must step in and do so.
Two cases, two very different sets of facts. As I said, we’ll have to wait and see on the first case, which might prove to be no big deal. The second case, though, strikes me as a reflection of the low esteem in which the media are held these days. A protection that has allowed news organizations to publish secret government documents as long as they don’t put the country at risk is now being flouted by a state judge for the flimsiest of reasons.