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.

Congress is talking once again about making Google and Facebook pay for news

Sen. Amy Klobuchar is a lead sponsor of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore.

A bill that could force Google and Facebook to fork over billions of dollars to local news outlets has lurched back to life. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, or JCPA, would allow publishers to negotiate as a bloc with the two giant tech platforms, something that would normally be prohibited because of antitrust concerns. The proposal would exclude the largest publishers and, as Rick Edmonds notes at Poynter Online, would lead to binding arbitration if the two sides can’t reach an agreement.

The legislation’s cosponsors in the Senate are Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Kennedy, R-La.; the House cosponsors are David Cicilline, D-R.I., and Ken Buck, R-Colo. That bipartisan support means the bill might actually be enacted. But is it a good idea?

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The premise on which the legislation is built is that Google and Facebook should pay fair compensation for repurposing the news content that they use. This strikes me as being much more straightforward with Google than with Facebook. Google’s mission is to index all the world’s knowledge, including journalism; Facebook is a social network, many of whose users post links to news stories. Facebook isn’t nearly as dependent on journalism as Google is and, in fact, has down-ranked it on several occasions over the years.

Google’s responsibility isn’t entirely clear, either. Yes, it links to news stories and publishes brief snippets. But it’s not a zero-sum situation — there’s no reason to believe that Google is depriving news publishers of traffic. It’s more likely that Google is pushing users to news sites and, with the rise of paywalls, may even be boosting subscriptions for local news outlets. Still, you could make a philosophical argument that Google ought to pay something because it benefits from having access to journalism, regardless of whether that deprives news outlets of any revenues.

A similar law in Australia has brought in $140 million, Edmonds reports. But critics have complained that the law’s main effect has been to further enrich Rupert Murdoch, still the leading press baron in his native country.

The JCPA should not be confused with the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, or LJSA, which would provide three tax credits for local news outlets — one for subscribers, who would get to write off news subscriptions on their taxes; one for advertisers; and one for publishers for hiring and retaining journalists. As Steve Waldman, chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, recently told us on the “What Works” podcast, this last provision is especially powerful because it would provide an incentive to do the right thing even at bottom-feeding chains owned by Alden Global Capital and Gannett.

Despite bipartisan support, the LJSA ran aground last year when President Biden split off the publishers’ credit and added it to the doomed Build Back Better bill. Perhaps it will be revived.

Is either measure needed in order to revive local news? What Ellen Clegg and I have found in the course of reporting for our book-in-progress, also called “What Works,” is that many independent local and regional news organizations across the country, nonprofit and for-profit alike, are doing reasonably well without government assistance. Since both the JCPA and the LJSA would be time-limited, maybe it’s worth giving them a try to see what the effects will ultimately be. But neither one of them will save local news — nor is it clear that local news needs saving once you remove the dead hand of corporate chain ownership.

Memphis newspaper legend Otis Sanford on the rise of a new media ecosystem

Otis Sanford at his 2014 induction into the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame

This week on the “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Professor Otis Sanford, who is something of a journalistic legend in Memphis. As a general assignment reporter at The Commercial Appeal in 1977, Sanford covered the death of Elvis Presley. He also covered courts, county government and politics before being promoted into management. After stints at the Pittsburgh Press and Detroit Free Press, Sanford returned to The Commercial Appeal. In 2002 he was named managing editor and in 2007 he became editorial page editor.

As opinion editor in Memphis, Sanford launched a Citizens Editorial Board. While that was a number of years ago, Sanford was ahead of the curve in terms of community engagement.

In 2011, Sanford joined the University of Memphis Department of Journalism faculty. He holds the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Economic and Managerial Journalism. He still writes a column on politics and events in Memphis. It’s published in The Daily Memphian, a thriving startup founded by journalists and business people who were disappointed by the rounds of layoffs at The Commercial Appeal.

The Daily Memphian is one of two digital newsrooms launched by journalists who left The Commercial Appeal. The other newsroom is the award-winning MLK50, started by Wendi C. Thomas, to cover income inequality, race and justice issues.

I’ve got a quick take on the latest from The Baltimore Banner, a digital start-up that will be competing with the Baltimore Sun, acquired last year by the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

Ellen looks at the new Votebeat site, a Chalkbeat spinoff that just might help election integrity.

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

Encore! Encore! Julie Reynolds talks about how Alden Global Capital destroys newspapers

Julie Reynolds

In this Encore Edition of “What Works,” freelance investigative journalist Julie Reynolds talks about her singular pursuit of the truth about Alden Global Capital, the secretive New York hedge fund that has gobbled up newspapers across the country, stripping assets and firing reporters. Reynolds connects the dots from Alden to Cerberus Capital Management, the “shadow bank” that backed Alden’s 2021 takeover of Tribune Publishing.

In Quick Takes, I explore pink slime news sites, and Ellen Clegg reports on some good news for newspaper readers in the town that inspired Frostbite Falls, home to Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Ellen and I interviewed Julie in October 2021, but her research is still valid today — an unfortunate circumstance for the future of independent local journalism. We’ll be back with fresh content next week.

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

Not every newspaper chain is as bad as Gannett or Alden. Here’s a Mass. list.

Updated on April 6.

Recently I put together a crowdsourced spreadsheet of independent local news outlets in Massachusetts in order to show that community journalism hasn’t been entirely swallowed up by corporate chain journalism. If a paper is owned by an out-of-state group, it didn’t make the cut.

But not every chain is as bad as Gannett or Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group. Alden, as you may know, owns The Sun of Lowell, the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg and the Boston Herald, all of which have been slashed to the bone — and beyond. Gannett is closing and merging our venerable weekly newspapers and reassigning local reporters to regional beats.

There aren’t too many other chain newspapers in Massachusetts, but there are a few — and all of them are doing a better job of serving their communities than Alden or Gannett. Here are the ones that come to mind:

CNHI, Montgomery, Alabama

  • Eagle-Tribune of North Andover (daily)
  • Daily News of Newburyport (daily)
  • Salem News (daily)
  • Gloucester Daily Times (daily)
  • Haverhill Gazette (weekly)
  • Andover Townsman (weekly)

Steven Malkowich of Vancouver, British Columbia*

  • Sun Chronicle of Attleboro (daily)
  • Foxboro Reporter (weekly)

Advance Publications of New York

  • Republican of Springfield (daily)
  • MassLive (digital)
  • Reminder (weeklies in multiple communities in the Greater Springfield area; click here for a list)

Newspapers of New England, Concord, New Hampshire

  • Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton
  • Athol Daily News
  • Greenfield Recorder (daily)
  • Amherst Bulletin (weekly)
  • Valley Advocate of Northampton (alt-weekly)

I think this is the complete list, but if you know of any more, just drop me a line at dan dot kennedy at northeastern dot edu.

*Malkowich’s holdings are … complicated. Here is a Los Angeles Times story that offers a little bit of background. I do know that he earns generally high marks for the way that he’s presided over The Sun Chronicle.

‘60 Minutes’ reports on Alden, Report for America and the local news crisis

Sunday’s “60 Minutes” episode on the local news crisis was a worthy if unoriginal treatment focusing on the depredations of Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that is our worst newspaper owner. Viewers are also introduced to Report for America, the organization that’s placing journalists in underserved communities around the country. If you didn’t get a chance to see it, you can tune in here.

News organizations need to stop stonewalling on layoffs and diversity data

Photo (cc) 2009 by Richard Kendall

The Poynter Institute has published an important story on the difficulty of tracking layoffs of journalists, especially journalists of color. As Kristen Hare writes, very few news organizations let it be known when they’ve eliminated positions. “For an industry that prizes transparency,” she says, “we’re experts at asking for it and rotten at actually offering it.”

She’s right, and it’s something I’ve found pretty frustrating whenever I hear reports that newspapers owned by Gannett or Alden Global Capital have downsized once again. Since many news organizations follow the practice of last hired, first fired, journalists from underrepresented groups tend to be disproportionately affected — but finding out exactly what happened is difficult if not impossible. Hare offers three explanations for why this information is so hard to come by:

  • “Lack of public notice about who was laid off and where
  • “A reluctance among some journalists to say anything publicly
  • “Growing use of nondisclosure agreements that include non-disparagement agreements”

Hare also quotes my Northeastern journalism colleague Meredith Clark, who’s been working with the News Leaders Association to revive its annual survey of newsroom diversity — a survey that was suspended several years ago because so few news organizations were responding. Dr. Clark puts it this way:

The thing is, journalism as an institution, as a business, has a vested interest in continuing to isolate people in terms of their knowledge of what the field actually looks like. And the corporatization of journalism helps with that because it’s easy to say, “Oh, this is a problem for HR,” or, “Oh, because of legal we can’t do this.”

Clark is absolutely right, and it extends well beyond layoff and diversity numbers. I’ve been covering the news media for more than 25 years, and though I’ve found a great deal of openness to the idea that journalists should be as transparent as they expect their sources to be, I’ve encountered plenty of examples of the opposite, too.

Unfortunately, we can’t file public-records requests or demand the right to attend  meetings at media outlets. Rather, we have to rely on news executives to do the right thing. If they think government officials should be compelled to release data that casts them in an unfavorable light, then why do they think it ought to be different for media organizations?

How local news helped Callie Crossley with her research for ‘Eyes on the Prize’

Callie Crossley. Photo via GBH News.

Callie Crossley of GBH News is a multitalented broadcast journalist and producer. She hosts “Under the Radar with Callie Crossley” and shares radio essays each Monday on GBH’s “Morning Edition.” She also hosts “Basic Black,” which covers news events that have an impact on communities of color. Crossley’s work on “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years” won numerous awards.

In a wide-ranging conversation with Ellen and Dan, Crossley shares her views on the thinning out of local news outlets and offers sage advice for next-generation journalists. Callie and Dan were regulars on “Beat the Press,” the award-winning GBH-TV show that featured media commentary, which ended its 22-year run in 2021. In 2019, both of them received the Yankee Quill Award from the New England Society of Newspaper Editors.

In Quick Takes on developments in local news, Dan laments the rise of robot journalism, and Ellen reports on an effort by publisher Lee Enterprises to fight off a takeover bid by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

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

The latest bad idea for chain newspapers: Robot reporting on real estate

Tom Breen of the New Haven Independent covers real-estate transactions the old-fashioned way. Photos (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

At least two New England newspaper publishers have begun using artificial intelligence rather than carbon-based life forms to report on real-estate transactions.

The Republican of Springfield, online as MassLive, and Hearst Connecticut Media, comprising the New Haven Register and seven other daily newspapers, are running stories put together by an outfit called United Robots. MassLive’s stories are behind a hard paywall, but here’s a taste from the Register of what such articles look like.

United Robots, a Swedish company, touts itself as offering “news automation at massive scale using AI and data science.”

Last year I wrote about artificial intelligence and journalism for GBH News. I’m skeptical, but it depends on how you use it. In some ways AI has made our lives easier by, for instance, enhancing online search and powering the inexpensive transcription of audio interviews. But using it to write stories? Not good. As I wrote last year:

Such a system has been in use at The Washington Post for several years to produce reports about high school football. Input a box score and out comes a story that looks more or less like an actual person wrote it. Some news organizations are doing the same with financial data. It sounds innocuous enough given that much of this work would probably go undone if it couldn’t be automated. But let’s curb our enthusiasm.

Using AI to produce stories about real-estate transactions may seem fairly harmless. But let me give you an example of why it’s anything but.

In November, I accompanied Tom Breen, the managing editor of the New Haven Independent, as he knocked on the doors of houses that had been foreclosed on recently. The Independent is a digital nonprofit news site.

A note Breen left behind asking the resident to call him. (Phone number removed.)

Breen has spent a considerable amount of time and effort in housing court and poring through online real-estate transactions. From doing that, he could see patterns that had emerged. Like Boston and many other cities, New Haven has experienced an explosion in real-estate prices, and a lot of owners are flipping their properties to cash in. In too many cases there are victims — low-income renters whose new landlords, often absentee, jack up the rents. Breen takes the data he’s gathered and rides his bike into the neighborhoods, knocking on doors and talking with residents. It’s difficult, occasionally dangerous work. Once he was attacked by a pit bull.

We didn’t have much luck on our excursion. No one was home at either of the two houses we visited, so Breen left notes behind asking the residents to call him.

“If investors are swapping properties at $100,000, $200,000 above the appraised value and tens of thousands of dollars above what they bought it for two days prior,” Breen told me, “all that can do is drive up costs that are passed down to the renters — to the people actually living in the building.”

The result of Breen’s enterprise has been a series of stories like this one. The lead:

Tenants of a three-family ​lemon” of a house on Liberty Street are wondering how two landlords managed to walk away with $180,000 by double-selling a property that they say remains a dump.

You’re not going to get that kind of reporting from artificial intelligence.

Now, of course, you might argue — and some have, as I noted in my GBH News piece — that AI saves journalists from drudge work, freeing them up to do exactly the kind of enterprise reporting that Breen does. But story ideas often arise from immersion in boring data and sitting through lengthy proceedings; outsource the data collection to a robot, and it’s likely that will be the end of it.

Bad sign: Here’s how Breen and I were greeted at one foreclosed-upon property. (Names removed.)

At the corporate chains that own so many of our newspapers, there’s little doubt that AI will be used as just another opportunity to cut. Hearst and Advance, the national chain that owns The Republican, are not the worst or most greedy newspapers chains by any means. But both of them have engaged in more than their share of cost-cutting over the years.

And it’s spreading. United Robots’ U.S. clients include the McClatchy newspaper chain and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, part of the Cox chain. No doubt the Big Two — Gannett and the groups owned by Alden Global Capital — won’t be far behind.

Houston becomes the latest city to announce a nonprofit news project

Downtown Houston. Photo (cc) 2018 by David Daniel Turner.

Big news out of Houston, where several major philanthropies have announced they intend to raise $20 million to start a nonprofit news project — just the latest major metropolitan area to embrace nonprofit journalism.

What makes it a bit unusual is that the Houston Chronicle, the legacy daily, is owned by Hearst, generally regarded as one of the better newspapers chains. Of course, all corporate chains are problematic, but Houston is not like Baltimore, where hotel magnate Stewart Bainum is launching the nonprofit The Baltimore Banner after losing out to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital in his bid to buy The Baltimore Sun.

The Houston effort is being led by the American Journalism Project, whose chief executive, Sarabeth Berman, told the Columbia Journalism Review:

Local news is a public service — one that’s been in sharp decline. This project demonstrates that local philanthropies can, and need to, play a transformative role in rebuilding and sustaining independent, original reporting in service of communities.

Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

With an anticipated launch in late 2022 or early 2023 on multiple platforms, the new nonprofit news organization will elevate the voices of Houstonians and address the needs of the community as identified in the American Journalism Project’s extensive research. Its wide-ranging coverage will be available for free to readers as well as other news organizations.

I wish them well, of course. Still, it’s hard not to wonder if the money could go to better use elsewhere. Greater Houston residents already get first-rate coverage of state politics and public policy through The Texas Tribune, which is also a nonprofit, and the Chronicle is presumably doing a better job than your typical Alden or Gannett paper.

Click here to read the full press release.