On this Friday morning, I’ve got three stories that I think are worth sharing with you. This is not the debut of a regular feature, but from time to time I run across good journalism that I want to put out there without much in the way of commentary. That’s what we used to use Twitter for, right?
• The Washington Post isn’t going to be fixed anytime soon. Those of us who follow the trials and tribulations of The Washington Post have assumed that longtime publisher Fred Ryan had at least one foot on the proverbial banana peel. But according to Clare Malone, writing in The New Yorker, Ryan has emerged as more powerful than ever since the retirement of Marty Baron as executive editor. He seems to have no fresh ideas for reversing the Post’s declining fortunes, but Bezos apparently likes him. It doesn’t sound like Baron’s successor, Sally Buzbee, shares Bezos’ affection for Ryan, but she lacks the clout that the legendary Baron had.
• Questions about the police killing of Tyre Nichols. MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is among the projects that Ellen Clegg and I are writing about in “What Works in Community News,” our book-in-progress. The website, based in Memphis, focuses on social justice issues. In a list of questions that need to be answered about Nichols’ death, this one stands out: “Since 2015, Memphis police have killed at least 15 people. How many people would need to die at the police’s hands before city leaders concede that the latest incident isn’t an indictment of a few bad apples, but reflects an institution that requires immediate overhaul?”
• The Durham investigation was as corrupt it appeared. New York Times reporters Charlie Savage, Adam Goldman and Katie Benner go deep (free link) into Bill Barr and John Durham’s years-long effort to discredit the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and to somehow drag Hillary Clinton into it. The best quote is from Robert Luskin, a lawyer who represented two witnesses Durham interviewed: ““When did these guys drink the Kool-Aid, and who served it to them?”
Two weeks ago I broke the news that The Boston Globe is launching a grant-supported project called Closing the Gap, which will “explore the racial wealth gap in Boston and beyond.” Now the Globe itself is making it official, reporting that the paper will begin the project with a $750,000 grant from the Barr Foundation.
“Despite The Barr Foundation’s funding, the Globe will have complete editorial control over the initiative,” according to the Globe’s story about the project. “The team will operate similarly to The Great Divide, a team of Globe journalists focused on investigating race, class, and inequality in Boston-area schools, and that is also partially funded by Barr.”
The story also says that the intent is to build on its 2017 Spotlight series “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality,” which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. A search committee for an editor-in-chief will comprise metro editor Anica Butler, business columnist Shirley Leung and senior assistant managing editor Jeneé Osterheldt.
Although the story doesn’t say so, I would imagine that incoming editor Nancy Barnes will have a say as well. Barnes will succeed longtime editor Brian McGrory on Feb. 1, when McGrory leaves to chair Boston University’s journalism department. McGrory explained the purpose behind Closing the Gap in an email to the staff, a copy of which I received from a trusted source:
We’ve made issues of inequality a focus of our coverage for many, many years, a mandate because Boston is one of the most unequal places on the planet. We’ve done award-winning work, like Spotlight’s 2017 race series and the Valedictorians Project. We’ve dedicated the Great Divide team to looking at the manifestation of inequality in our public schools. We have imbued inequality into so many of our key beats. It has all been utterly vital.
Which is why I’m delighted to share the news that we’ve received a grant for $750,000 a year to build a team to focus on the racial wealth gap in Boston and beyond. The grant comes from the Barr Foundation. We’ll dedicate resources of our own, and use the grant to hire a team leader and several additional journalists who will probe the causes of this seismic gap in wealth, the impact it has on life in Boston, and how it can be addressed.
This won’t only be a news team, or an enterprise team, or a projects team. It will be all that and more. Its metabolism will be high. Its approach will be thoughtful. Its work will be approachable and provocative. The gap has been pondered in plenty of deeply researched white papers that sit on high shelves. We intend to bring it to life, vividly exposing its consequences and rigorously exploring solutions. In short, we’ll look at how we got to a place where the average Black family has a net worth of $8 and white families have $247,000, and how do we get out.
As Barr has recently focused much of its mission on issues of racial equity, we engaged them in conversation about our work. Anica Butler and Shirley Leung put together a brilliant proposal that will serve as a blueprint for what this team will be and should accomplish. The grant was made in swift fashion.
The Barr Foundation has funded a good part of our Great Divide team for the past three-plus years. That experience has shown us just how much Barr appreciates the role of journalism in civic life – and how much it respects the firewall between us. On the wealth gap team, as with the education team, Barr has no say, no role, in what we produce.
The first order of business is finding an editor to oversee the team, which will live in Metro. If you’re interested, or you want to recommend someone, please reach out to Anica, Shirley, or Jeneé. We’re launching an initiative that is breaking new ground in our industry and will have a massive impact on our region. More to come as it unfolds.
Well … OK. Except that the organization has been around for a few years. Way back in July 2021 I quoted Steven Waldman and noted that he was the co-founder of the coalition. Its main policy goals — tax credits aimed at boosting subscriptions and advertising as well as giving publishers incentives to hire and retain journalists — are also nothing new. That’s the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, or LJSA, a federal bill that kicked around for several years before dying at the end of the last Congress. With the House now controlled by press-hating right-wing Republicans, we are not likely to see it resurrected anytime soon.
But if the coalition wants to relaunch and call new attention to its work, so be it. According to this announcement, Waldman is taking a more prominent position — he’ll now be the full-time president, and he’s cutting back on his work at Report for America, which he also cofounded. The coalition has also reorganized as an independent nonprofit.
Ellen Clegg and I talked with Waldman about the Rebuild Local News Coalition and the LJSA on the “What Works” podcast in mid-2022. You can listen to it here, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
A Newburyport parents group denies it’s ever called for books to be banned, then immediately calls for the banning of books. From Jim Sullivan at The Daily News of Newburyport:
A spokesperson for Citizens For Responsible Education said in an email Monday that no member of the group has ever advocated for a book to be banned.
“We have made it crystal clear that sexually explicit books should not be made available on public school property or via the SORA app to minors. If a parent or child would like to purchase books such as ‘Gender Queer,’ ‘This Book is Gay,’ etc., with their own money, then so be it. There is zero educational value to these books and a waste of taxpayer dollars. In fact, giving a child instructions on how to hook up with an adult via a sex app is dangerous on its own merits,” the email reads.
I’m going to guess that no teenager lacks information on how to use a sex app.
No sooner had I hit “publish” on Monday’s item about The Washington Post than a rumor started circulating that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was getting ready to sell. The New York Post claimed that Bezos would unload the Post in order to raise money so that he could buy the Washington Commanders.
The rumor made no sense. Bezos, the fourth-richest person in the world, is worth $120.7 billion, according to Forbes, and could presumably buy the Commanders with change he finds in his pants pocket. (The Commanders are valued at $5.6 billion, according to Statista.) Selling the Post would bring in very little — he paid $250 million for it in 2013, and though the paper enjoyed years of profits and meteoric growth, it’s been losing both circulation and money over the past year. Which is to say that he might not be able to get much more for the Post than he paid for it nearly 10 years ago.
As Chloe Melas reports for CNN, spokespersons for both Bezos and the Post denied the rumor immediately. CNN’s Oliver Darcy, in his media newsletter, notes that the N.Y. Post later toned down its headline.
If Bezos ever gets tired of being a newspaper mogul, I hope he’ll donate the Post to a nonprofit organization, as the late Gerry Lenfest did with The Philadelphia Inquirer. But a week after one of Bezos’ rare visits to the Post, there are no signs of that happening.
Should someone from the business side of a major newspaper — up to and including the owner — sit in on a news meeting? Generally speaking, the answer is no, but I’m not sure that there’s any hard and fast rule. An ethical owner will not interfere in the news coverage in any way. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t listen.
In early 2017, when I was reporting for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” I was allowed to sit in on a Boston Globe news meeting presided over by the paper’s editor, Brian McGrory. I was somewhat surprised to see co-owner Linda Henry, now the CEO, sitting off to one side, taking notes. She said nothing, and it didn’t strike me as inappropriate — just a bit unexpected.
Another owner I was tracking, Jeff Bezos, was a different story. According to everyone I spoke with, Bezos was entirely hands-off with the news operations of The Washington Post, although he was deeply involved in various business and technology initiatives. By all accounts, Amazon’s founder was a model newspaper owner, leaving his journalists alone to cover the news — including Bezos’ own interests — as they saw fit.
So I was surprised to learn in The New York Times (free link) that Bezos had recently sat in on a news meeting at the Post and listened as executive editor Sally Buzbee and her lieutenants discussed several story ideas that no doubt piqued Bezos’ interest. According to the Times’ Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson:
Other than Mr. Bezos’ appearance, the news meeting proceeded as it might on any other day, with editors discussing news stories and readership trends, according to the people with knowledge of the meeting. At one point, an editor mentioned plans to run an article about the discontinuation of AmazonSmile, a charity program that Mr. Bezos championed. The editors also discussed the pending sale of the Washington Commanders. The Post previously reported that Mr. Bezos was interested in buying the National Football League team.
Now, you might say that Buzbee’s predecessor, the legendary Marty Baron, never would have allowed such a breach of the wall between the news and the business sides. Well, maybe, maybe not. Because Mullin took to Twitter and reported that he’d heard the same thing had happened at least once during the Baron years. “For what it’s worth: Someone told me this happened in an editorial meeting under Marty Baron, who turned to Jeff and asked him for comment on the spot,” Mullin tweeted. “I’m told Jeff gave a big Jeff laugh and no-commented.”
For what it's worth: Someone told me this happened in an editorial meeting under Marty Baron, who turned to Jeff and asked him for comment on the spot. I'm told Jeff gave a big Jeff laugh and no-commented https://t.co/WJrp5qyuBr
After years of growth and profits under Bezos, the Post is now losing both circulation and money (another free link; hey, it’s almost the end of the month, when the meter resets). I’ve written before that I think the greatest risk to the Post is that Bezos may be losing interest, so at least his recent meeting suggests that it still engages him. But for someone who seems to have been scrupulous about not interfering in the Post’s news coverage, he ought to be self-aware enough not to sit in on news meetings.
By the way, I should note that though ethical owners and publishers keep their hands off news coverage, that’s not the case on the opinion side. The Post, the Globe and most other large dailies have a strict separation between news and opinion, with the top editors of those operations reporting directly to the publisher. It is entirely ethical for publishers to get involved in the opinion section, and both Linda and John Henry have done that over the years. Bezos, by all accounts, has been as uninvolved in the Post’s opinion operation as he is in news coverage — but that’s his choice. It’s not a requirement.
A final note: In Semafor on Sunday, Ben Smith wrote an item headlined “The Billionaire Era in News Is Fizzling,” building on the Times’ report about Bezos and the Post. Smith lists a bunch of them, from Bezos to Laurene Powell Jobs at The Atlantic and Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong at the Los Angeles Times.
But John Henry, a billionaire financier, is nowhere to be seen — even though in his own take-it-slow way he’s rebuilt the Globe into a growing and presumably profitable (he hasn’t said for several years, but he keeps hiring) enterprise. Sounds to me like bias against what is still seen in many quarters as a provincial outpost.
From the Department of You’ve Got to Be Kidding: Gannett has announced that it will close its printing plant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and move the work to its presses in Auburn, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island. The daily papers that will be affected are the Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily Democrat and — are you ready? — the Burlington Free Press, located not far from the Canadian border.
Word of the switch was published in the Portsmouth Herald on Wednesday. I have not been able to find it in the Free Press, either in print or online (my USA Today digital subscription gives me access to the replica editions of every Gannett daily in the country, which is why I was able to check). But assuming that Gannett’s own story is accurate, that is really a breathtaking move. According to Apple Maps, it’s a three-and-a-half-hour, 240-mile drive from Auburn to Burlington. Providence is even worse — about four hours and nearly 270 miles. And that’s right now, without any traffic to speak of.
The Herald offers this statement from Gannett:
As our business becomes increasingly digital and subscription-focused, newspaper printing partnerships have become standard. We are making strategic decisions to ensure the future of local journalism and continue our outstanding service to the community.
Ah, yes, digital subscriptions, Gannett’s standard answer to everything. Well, let’s look at the Burlington Free Press’ latest filings with the Alliance for Audited Media, shall we? For the six-month period ending last Sept. 30, the average weekday print circulation was 4,000, with another 6,012 on Sundays. Meanwhile, paid digital replica circulation was 1,051 on weekdays and 667 on Sundays. Nothing is listed for straight-up digital subscriptions, but in March 2021 the Free Press reported about 1,400 on weekdays and about 1,200 on Sundays for digital nonreplica. So, roughly, that’s a total of around 2,000 digital replica and nonreplica subscriptions. Not impressive, and clearly the Free Press’ print product is still what its readers are looking for.
Then again, Gannett has long since ceded the Burlington market to a terrific alt-weekly, Seven Days; a leading digital nonprofit, VTDigger; and Vermont Public Radio. I wrote about that in my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls.” We also recently interviewed VTDigger’s founder, Anne Galloway, on the “What Works” podcast.
On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Adam Gaffin, founder of Universal Hub and inventor of the French Toast Alert System. Universal Hub tracks news in the Boston area from the serious to the just plain weird by linking to hundreds of news outlets and local websites and by offering original reporting. His Twitter feed is a must-follow and, thankfully, he’s set up shop on Mastodon as well.
I wrote a profile of Adam for CommonWealth Magazine in 2008. Adam has been a local connector since the earliest days of digital self-publishing — well before blogging, putting together a directory of websites called New England Online in the early ’90s and then transforming that into Boston Online.
Ellen has a Quick Take on a young journalist who lost her job at West Virginia Public Broadcasting after she reported on alleged government abuses in the state’s foster care and psychiatric system. The journalist, Amelia Ferrell Knisely, alleges that there was political interference with the station, WVPB, which receives state funding.
I examine an important First Amendment case involving a citizen journalist in Texas. Roxanna Asgarian of The Texas Tribune broke the story. It’s a complicated tale, but the root of it is whether a citizen journalist should enjoy the same right to sue the government over a violation of her constitutional rights as a recognized news organization.
Many of the local news projects that we’re interested in here at What Works are just a few steps beyond citizen journalism, and we are firmly of the belief that the First Amendment protections enjoyed by large news outlets should be applied to small outlets and citizen journalists as well. It remains to be seen whether a federal appeals court in Texas will agree.
Way back in 1996, when Section 230 was enacted into law, it was designed to protect all web publishers, most definitely including newspapers, from being sued over third-party content posted in their comment sections. It would be another eight years before Facebook was launched, and longer than that before algorithms would be used to boost certain types of content.
But that didn’t stop David McCabe of The New York Times — who, we are told, “has reported for five years on the policy debate over online speech” — from including this howler in a story about two cases regarding Section 230 that are being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court:
While newspapers and magazines can be sued over what they publish, Section 230 shields online platforms from lawsuits over most content posted by their users.
No. I have to assume that McCabe and maybe even his editors know better, and that this was their inept way of summarizing the issue for a general readership. But it perpetuates the harmful and wrong notion that this is only about Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. It’s not. Newspapers and magazines are liable for everything they publish except third-party online comments, which means that they are treated exactly the same as the giant platforms.
Though it is true that an early case testing Section 230 involved comments posted at AOL rather than on a news website, the principle that online publishers can’t be held liable for what third parties post on their platforms is as valuable to, oh, let’s say The New York Times as it is to Facebook.
That’s not to say 230 can’t be reformed and restricted; and, as I wrote recently, it probably should be. But it’s important that the public understand exactly what’s at stake.
The Register Citizen of Torrington, Connecticut, is moving from daily to weekly print publication starting March 12. The paper is part of the Hearst CT chain, which has gone all-in on digital — so I wouldn’t criticize this move unless it results in less coverage.