How an escapade on a frozen pond led one newspaper to reform its crime coverage

Photos (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy

One February day in 2020, an obituary caught Paul Cuno-Booth’s eye. At that time the police and courts reporter for The Keene Sentinel in rural western New Hampshire, Cuno-Booth had two years earlier written about one of those wacky incidents that editors and readers love.

A 47-year-old woman had driven out onto the ice on a pond, doing donuts, knocking over fishermen’s equipment and leading police on a slow-motion chase, throwing things out of her window as she drove. She was arrested and charged with criminal mischief and disobeying an officer.

Now, reading her obit, he learned more about the woman who’d been arrested on the ice that day. She’d had surgery for a brain tumor in 2016. She’d worked with mentally disabled people. She was a triathlete. Hers was a deep, well-rounded life, and the Sentinel’s story had reduced her to a caricature for the entertainment of its readers.

Cuno-Booth and others at the Sentinel started talking about how they could cover criminal justice in a way that reflected the complexities of the people they were writing about — people who were, in many cases, suffering from substance abuse, trauma and poverty. Crime coverage at the Sentinel, he said, was typical of most papers, consisting of “a lot of quick-hit articles,” press releases from the police, “not a lot of reporting, not a lot of context.” They decided they needed to make some changes. But where to begin?

From Cuno-Booth’s slideshow

Cuno-Booth described the Sentinel’s dilemma and the steps that it took to improve its coverage at the Radically Rural conference last week in Keene, New Hampshire. Sponsored by the Sentinel and the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship, the conference, now in its fifth year, featured panels on agriculture, housing, the environment and community journalism. Ellen Clegg and I interviewed the Sentinel’s president and COO, Terry Williams, on the “What Works” podcast a few weeks ago.

Cuno-Booth said he left the Sentinel but stayed in touch with the paper; he’s now a freelancer, working with New Hampshire Public Radio and other outlets. The paper’s crime coverage, he told the audience, was reoriented with the help of Kelly McBride, an ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Essentially, it came down to being more deliberate — individual crimes would not be reported unless the paper was prepared to follow them all the way through the court system, which immediately ruled out minor offenses. They’d look for trends rather than writing about, for instance, an 18-year-old picked up on an alcohol violation. They’d give people a chance to have stories about their earlier misdeeds be removed from Google search, although they’d remain in the Sentinel’s archives — a step taken by a number of news organizations in recent years, including The Boston Globe. Mug shots would rarely be published.

“I think it’s still very much a work in progress,” Cuno-Booth said. Nevertheless, that one moment of infamy for a troubled woman in 2018 has led to some significant changes in the way that the Sentinel covers crime and serves its community.

Shot of love

We’ve been watching Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary “Baseball,” which certainly beats watching the Red Sox these days. Last night, as the story turned to the death of Babe Ruth’s first wife, Helen Ruth, in a Watertown house fire, I heard a familiar tune on piano. I couldn’t quite place it except that it was clearly a hymn.

Then I remembered. It was “Abide with Me,” which — in addition to being sacred music — is the first piece on Thelonious Monk’s 1957 album “Monk’s Music,” written, as it turns out, by a 19th-century English church musician named William Henry Monk. Thelonious Monk doesn’t play; instead, it’s lovingly rendered by his horn section, consisting of Ray Copeland on trumpet, Gigi Gryce on alto sax, and Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane on tenor sax.

Please give it a listen. It might be the most uplifting thing you do all day.

Hermione Malone tells us how philanthropies can partner with local news outlets

Hermione Malone, left, of the American Journalism Project

On this week’s “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Hermione Malone, vice president of strategy and startups for the American Journalism Project. The AJP describes itself as a nonprofit venture philanthropy organization that focuses on supporting the future of local news. The organization makes grants to nonprofit news organizations, partners with communities to launch new outlets, and coaches leaders as they grow and sustain their newsrooms.

Hermione oversees local philanthropy partnerships. In that role, she helps nonprofit news startups get launched and nurtures coalitions of community stakeholders and local philanthropies. Her career has included work in diversity and inclusion and in community outreach. As executive director of Go.Be, a New Orleans-based nonprofit, she coached businesses owned by people of color and women, helping them figure out how to grow.

Ellen’s got a Quick Take is on Permian Proud, a pink-slime site put up by Chevron that provides a gusher of one-sided PR spin. Mine is on new research by Josh Stearns, senior director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund. Josh has fresh evidence that shows that local news is vital for democracy.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

A conversation about the local news crisis in a time of polarization

I’d like to let you know about a special program coming up on the crisis in community journalism. Titled “The Decline of Local News and the Rise of Polarization,” the event is part of the Masterman Speaker Series and the Ford Hall Forum at Suffolk Law School. It will be held next Thursday, Sept. 29, at 5 p.m. in Sargent Hall, 120 Tremont St., in the Blue Sky Lounge on the fifth floor.

I’ll be moderating, and I promise to inject some optimism into the proceedings. We’ve got a great panel:

  • Joshua Darr, associate professor of political communication at Louisiana State University. Ellen Clegg and I interviewed Darr earlier this year on the “What Works” podcast about his research into polarization and local opinion.
  • Renée Loth, an opinion columnist for The Boston Globe and a former editorial-page editor of the Globe.She is currently an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
  • Charles St. Amand, practioner in residence in Suffolk’s communication and journalism department and a 31-year veteran of community journalism, most recently as editor of the Sentinel & Enterprise in Fitchburg.

The program is free, but you do need to register. Just click here.

Politico’s look at the LA Times has some interesting tidbits, but it’s hardly a takedown

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2019 by the World Economic Forum.

Patrick Soon-Shiong came along too late to make the cut. In mid-2018, the celebrity surgeon bought the Los Angeles Times and several other papers for $500 million. My book about a new generation of wealthy newspaper owners, “The Return of the Moguls,” had just been published.

Too bad. Soon-Shiong is at least as interesting as the owners I wrote about: Jeff Bezos, who bought The Washington Post and re-established the legendary paper as a powerhouse; John Henry, who slowly transformed The Boston Globe into a growing and profitable enterprise; and Aaron Kushner, who poured money into the Orange County Register only to fail at attracting enough advertisers and readers to pay for his profligate spending.

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Now Politico has weighed in with a lengthy story about the Times under Soon-Shiong that portrays his ownership as something of a mixed bag. He’s invested in the paper, reversing years of cost-cutting by its previous owner, Tribune Publishing (which for a time was known as tronc), and he’s put a highly regarded editor, Kevin Merida, in charge of the newsroom. But his interest in the paper seems to wax and wane, and his daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong, is portrayed as interfering in the newsroom.

I have to say that I’m puzzled by some of the wailing. The Politico article, by Daniel Lippman, Christopher Cadelago and Max Tani, claims that Nika Soon-Shiong has inserted herself into the process of endorsing political candidates as though that were somehow a bad thing. Now, the Times may be making some dumb endorsements, such as its decision to back Nika Soon-Shiong ally Kenneth Mejia for city controller. Mejia, according to the Times’ own reporting, regards both Joe Biden and Donald Trump as “sexual predators.”

But a newspaper’s owners are free to insert themselves into the opinion pages as much as they’d like. A good owner will keep a distance from news operations, but the opinion section is their playground. John and Linda Henry are involved in the Globe’s editorial pages and no one thinks anything of it. Jeff Bezos’ lack of interest in the Post’s opinion operation is unusual.

Nika Soon-Shiong has also expressed her leftist views in a tweet (which she deleted) critical of her own paper’s crime coverage and in suggestions for story coverage. There is, for instance, this, which I find entirely benign, even salutory:

In 2020, Nika Soon-Shiong started participating in staff meetings about the paper’s failures in covering race and how it could become more inclusive in hiring. She suggested the paper avoid using the word “looting” when covering the unrest over police brutality, which inspired the paper to tweak style guidelines.

Times company leaders at the time asked then-top opinion editor Sewell Chan to brainstorm ways that Nika Soon-Shiong could get more involved in the paper. He talked with her about whether working with the opinion section would be a possibility. (Chan declined to comment.)

Politico quotes Merida as saying that Nika Soon-Shiong has “a right to critique our journalism, offer story ideas and other suggestions she believes will help make us better,” and that the “same right is extended to those we cover and to those who read us.” The fact-checker rates that statement as 100% true.

Patrick Soon-Shiong is a bit of an oddball. A profile in The New Yorker last year by Stephen Witt raised questions about his success as a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. But he has been a far better owner of the LA Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, a throw-in that was part of the Times deal, than Tribune Publishing had been. Indeed, Soon-Shiong’s one unforgivable act as a newspaper owner was a non-act — his decision to do nothing to stop the sale of Tribune to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which of course began gutting its papers as soon as the deal was consummated.

Tribune owns some of our most storied newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant — the oldest continuously published newspaper in the country. Soon-Shiong, a billionaire, could have stopped the transaction and helped Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum with his bid to buy the chain. Instead, Alden wound up with Tribune, and Bainum has launched a digital nonprofit called The Baltimore Banner. In an interview with Brian Stelter, then of CNN, Soon-Shiong protested that he was a “passive investor,” adding: “I’ve got my hands full and frankly, really committed to the LA Times and San Diego Union-Tribune.”

The Los Angeles Times is far better off under Soon-Shiong family ownership than it had been under years of Tribune mismanagement — mismanagement that would have turned into a rout under Alden. The Politico piece contains some interesting tidbits, but it’s hardly a takedown.

River ride

Twenty-one-mile ride along the Charles to the Museum of Science and back.

At Columbia, clashing views over the value and even the meaning of objectivity

Masha Gessen. Photo (cc) 2017 by the MIT Media Lab.

I was struck by an argument that Masha Gessen made earlier this week at a panel  about objectivity. Back in March, Gessen wrote a harrowing 7,000-word account for The New Yorker about Russian atrocities in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Her editors, she said, wanted to include a comment from the Russian government — a statement in which officials would deny the horrific reality of what she and photographer Jérôme Sessini had documented.

“The objective style would demand that we give the Russian government a platform to lie,” she said. She told her editors that it would have “contaminated” the entire story to include a few lines of official denial. She prevailed; but she added that if she had been writing about any other topic, “I would have lost that battle.”

At another point in the discussion she said, “If we’re going to have an ideal, then moral clarity would be a much better ideal than objectivity.”

Gessen made her remarks last Tuesday at a discussion sponsored by the Columbia Journalism Review and Columbia’s Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights called “The Objectivity Wars.” For the most part, the discussion was familiar and predictable, but there were a few moments of genuine insight.

The panelists were David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University; Lewis Raven Wallace, author of “The View from Somewhere,” best known for losing his job at public radio’s “Marketplace” after writing a blog post that was critical of journalistic objectivity; author and journalist Wesley Lowery, who left his job at The Washington Post after clashing with then-executive editor Marty Baron over his opinionated Twitter feed; and Andie Tucher, the H. Gordon Garbedian Professor of Journalism at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Moderating was Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the CJR.

The most outspoken defender of traditional objectivity was Greenberg, who said that opinion journalism and objective journalism have long co-existed, and each has an important place. He noted that, at many newspapers, journalists who had paid their dues by working as straight-news reporters were often rewarded with columns in which they could express their opinions. “There’s a certain prestige and freedom attached to that position,” he said.

Tucher added that objectivity arose as an antidote to the sensationalism of the 19th century. “Journalism was terrible,” she said. “It was embarrassing.” Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the lurid New York World, founded the Columbia School of Journalism, she said, out of a sense of “remorse.”

Lowery, whose critique of objectivity was best expressed in a New York Times op-ed piece published in 2020, argued that objectivity can’t be separated from race and gender, saying that the decisions that go into any conversation about what’s newsworthy and how stories should be covered are still overwhelmingly made by white men. “My piece will be different from your piece because we will make different subjective decisions,” he said. He said, too, that most news organizations have stopped providing information on how diverse their reporting staffs are (or aren’t) “because they don’t want to be embarrassed by it.”

Indeed, my Northeastern colleague Dr. Meredith Clark resigned from running the News Leaders Association’s diversity survey, she wrote earlier this year at Nieman Lab, because so few newsrooms were willing to respond. (Clark talked about her findings with Ellen Clegg and me on the “What Works” podcast a few months ago.)

Wallace said his turn against objectivity was grounded in his experience in coming out as transgender when he was a teenager. He wanted his identity to be part of what he did, he told the audience, saying, “Objectivity has been a silencing force — literally, in my case.”

Objectivity will continue to be a fraught subject. Properly understood, it simply means a fair-minded pursuit of the truth, with journalists adopting unbiased methods of reporting in order to get past their biases. Unfortunately, objectivity is too often reduced to the mindless reporting of “both sides” and of engaging in false equivalence.

The Columbia panel shows that those various understandings and misunderstandings of objectivity persist to this day.

Boston Globe employees told to return to the office starting next Tuesday

Like many organizations not dependent on face-to-face contact with the public, The Boston Globe has delayed bringing its employees back to the office. Several attempts have been made in the past, only to be set aside in response to a new COVID-19 surge.

Those days now appear to be over. Starting Tuesday, Sept. 20, non-production employees have been told to report for in-person work. Most employees, including journalists, will be expected to come in Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays with the option of working at home on Mondays and Fridays. This three-day schedule seems to be the new norm. It also coincides with the restoration of Orange Line service.

Here’s part of a memo sent to employees by Rodrigo Tajona, the Globe’s chief people officer:

I hope this note finds you safe and well. First of all, I would like to appreciate and recognize everything that each one of you has been doing for the company, before, during and post COVID. We understand that it hasn’t been easy, but we’ve managed to navigate through these unprecedented times by working together. This is a tremendous credit to each one of you and we are grateful in acknowledging these efforts.

During this time, when most of our non-production employees have been working from home, there’s no doubt that we have been executing positively towards achieving our goals as a company. However, there is also a clear sense that something is missing. We have welcomed over 200 new members of our community since the offices closed, and they haven’t had many opportunities to get to know their colleagues. There are follow-up conversations that don’t happen when a zoom window closes. The brainstorming and creative thinking that we need to continue to innovate as a modern media company is hindered by not being in the same room. The ability to learn from the expertise of our colleagues and to mentor newer colleagues is limited. And we have a civic duty to be part of the city that we cover. In the pages of the Globe, we have reported on the impact of closed offices on Boston. It is great to see that so many offices have returned, and our building at Exchange Place is bustling again.

We have had all of our BGMP [Boston Globe Media Partners] locations open for a while, and we have been happy to hear about the productive meetings and collaborations taking place in our beautiful offices.  As we have communicated in Town Halls and in company memos, we are ready and thrilled to have employees return to the office on a regular schedule effective September 20th 2022.

The following guidelines have been taken into consideration, understanding that life happens and flexibility is important to each one of us:

  • Although the offices will be open every day, we expect employees and managers to follow a 3/2 hybrid schedule; Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, to be at the office. Mondays and Fridays are flexible for location. This gives us the benefit of having people in the office at the same time to get the most out of in-person time. Employees will be expected to work from the office typical office hours for their role, or in some exceptions as agreed upon with their individual managers (such schedule to be approved at the manager’s discretion).
  • We expect employees and managers to schedule meetings for employees to attend in-person at the office, versus having an employee at the office, attending a virtual meeting.
  • Individual requests to work remotely will be managed by department heads. Requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis, based on the nature of the job, department needs, and in accordance with collective bargaining agreements, where relevant….

While we have done our best to anticipate how best to help you with your return to work, we count on your unique experience to help us help other employees too. We’re very excited to receive your feedback, and to seek how to move forward together in the best possible way.

Please connect with your manager or HR, if you have any questions or comments.

Welcome back! I am excited to see you.

‘Beat the Press’ takes on coverage of the queen’s death, the CNN shake-up and more

Photo (cc) 2009 by Commonwealth Secretariat

On the new “Beat the Press” podcast, we’ve got the lowdown on media coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the ongoing shake-up at CNN, the safety of journalists following the killing of Las Vegas Review-Journal investigative reporter Jeff German, and why a hot mic at the Little League World Series shows how far distrust of the media has gone. Plus we’ve got our panel Rants & Raves.

In the moderator’s chair, filling in for Emily Rooney, is former NECN anchor Mike Nikitas, joined by media consultant Susie Banikarim, Experience magazine editor Joanna Weiss and me. You can subscribe to “Beat the Press” at Apple Podcasts as well as other platforms.

Ethan Zuckerman on truth, trust and what it means for journalism

Ethan Zuckerman

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Ethan Zuckerman, associate professor of public policy, communication and information at UMass-Amherst. He’s also founder of the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, which is studying how to build alternatives to the commercial internet. And Ethan co-founded a local news initiative with global reach, a blogging community called Global Voices. 

An alum of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard and the MIT Media Lab, he is the author of two books. The latest is titled “Mistrust: Why Losing Faith in Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them.” It’s a powerful look at the rise of mistrust in institutions, especially media, and how that mistrust is provoking a crisis for representative democracy.

Ethan will be visiting Northeastern’s campus later this fall, so stay tuned for details.

I’ve got a Quick Take on Brian McGrory’s announcement that he will step down as editor of The Boston Globe to become chair of the journalism program at Boston University. Ellen checks out The Daily Catch, a hyperlocal news outlook covering Red Hook, New York.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.