No, the Digital First approach to newspaper ownership is not defensible

Politico media columnist Jack Shafer has written, if you can believe it, a semi-defense of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and its principal, Randall Smith, who are in the midst of running their newspapers into the ground. Alden owns the Digital First Media chain, whose Denver Post is the locus of an insurrection against hedge-fund ownership. The 100-paper chain also owns three Massachusetts properties: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

Shafer’s argument is a simple one: the end is at hand for the newspaper business, no one has figured out how to reverse its shrinking fortunes, and so therefore Smith can’t be blamed for squeezing out the last few drops of profit before the industry collapses. “Smith may be a rapacious fellow,” Shafer writes, “but his primary crime is recognizing that print is approaching its expiration date and is acting on the fact that more value can be extracted by sucking the marrow than by investing deeper or selling.”

Now, it’s possible that Shafer is right. But I’m considerably more optimistic about the future of newspapers than he is. Let me offer a few countervailing examples.

1. I certainly don’t want to sound naive about GateHouse Media, a chain of several hundred papers controlled by yet another hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group. GateHouse, which dominates Eastern Massachusetts, runs its papers on the cheap, too, and I’ve got a lot of problems with its barebones coverage of the communities it serves.

But GateHouse, unlike Digital First, is committed to newspapers. That’s why both insiders and outsiders were hoping GateHouse would buy the Herald. I genuinely think the folks at GateHouse are trying to crack the code on how to do community journalism at a profit for some years to come — and yes, its journalists are underpaid, and yes, I don’t like the fact that some editing operations have been centralized in Austin, Texas. But it could be worse, as Digital First demonstrates. For some insight into the GateHouse strategy, see this NPR story.

2. Smaller independently owned daily papers without debt can do well. The Berkshire Eagle is in the midst of a revival following its sale by Digital First to local business interests several years ago. In Maine, a printer named Reade Brower has built an in-state chain centered around the Portland Press Herald that by all accounts is doing well.

3. Large regional papers like The Denver Post are the most endangered. Transforming The Washington Post into a profitable national news organization, as Jeff Bezos has done, was a piece of cake compared to saving metros. As I describe in “The Return of the Moguls,” billionaire owner John Henry of The Boston Globe is pursuing a strategy that could result in a return to profitability: charging as much as the market will bear for print delivery (now up to more than $1,000 a year) and digital subscriptions ($30 a month). Globe executives say the paper is on track to pass the 100,000 mark for digital subscriptions in the first half of this year, and that the business model will start to look sustainable if it can reach 200,000.

In other words, reinventing the newspaper business is not a hopeless task. Randall Smith and Alden Global Capital have taken the easy, cynical route — but not the only route. There are better ways.

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Sunday night memo dump II: Berkshire Eagle’s latest moves

OK, this isn’t really a memo—it’s a press release that was posted at the Berkshire Eagle Friday afternoon. And it’s an encouraging sign from the local ownership group that acquired the Pittsfield-based daily and its three sister papers in Vermont (the Brattleboro Reformer, the Bennington Banner, and the Manchester Journal) from the Digital First Media chain earlier this year.

Hans Morris, chairman of the board of New England Newspapers Inc., has announced the formation of The Berkshire Eagle advisory board.

Don MacGillis, a former Eagle executive editor, has agreed to serve as chairman of this newspaper’s first-of-its-kind group of advisers. [MacGillis is also a former editor on the Boston Globe’s editorial pages.]

“Don MacGillis has agreed to chair the advisory board, and I believe he is uniquely qualified to do so,” said Morris. “He is a newspaperman through and through, and he knows and cares about the Berkshires and The Berkshire Eagle. Plus, he has the time and desire to get involved.”

“The new owners of The Eagle and I look to the advisory board as a way to make sure the paper is connected to, and responsive to, as many corners of the Berkshire County community as possible,” MacGillis said.

To that end, 18 Berkshire-based board members will bring to bear their experience in community affairs and/or journalism as The Eagle strives to become the best local newspaper in the United States.

They also will be charged with helping improve The Eagle’s editing, reporting and writing; making suggestions about news coverage and story ideas; and increasing the number of contributors to the news and opinion pages.

The board, which met for the first time on Thursday, includes education and arts advocate Megan Whilden, former Time magazine editor Donald Morrison, journalist and author Simon Winchester, journalist Linda Greenhouse, editor and author Richard Lipez, Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson, museum director Barbara Palmer, health care expert Charles “Chip” Joffe-Halpern, journalist Bill Densmore, attorney Wendy Linscott, consultant and educator Shirley Edgerton, author Jennifer Trainer Thompson, musician Yo-Yo Ma, journalist Daniel Lippman, retired educator Will Singleton, public policy researcher Oren Cass, multicultural advocate Eleanore Velez, journalist and professor Elizabeth Kolbert, and photographer Gregory Crewdson.

The Eagle’s local ownership group includes Morris, Robert G. Wilmers and Fredric D. Rutberg, president of New England Newspapers. Also this week, Judi Lipsey, wife of the late Eagle co-owner Stanford Lipsey, was appointed to the board of New England Newspapers Inc.

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Still more on The Berkshire Eagle and the racist column

The fallout from The Berkshire Eagle’s decision to publish a racist column by “conservative activist” Steven Nikitas continues. Today The Boston Globe weighs in with a story that is currently ranked second among the paper’s top trending articles. (My earlier posts, with links to Nikitas’ column and editor Kevin Moran’s response, are here and here.)

The story, by Callum Borchers (a former student of mine), includes a misguided interpretation of the First Amendment by a journalist and blogger named Dan Valenti:

Dan Valenti, an adjunct professor of journalism at Berkshire Community College, said the Eagle made “absolutely the right call” when it chose to print the Nikitas column. If anything should have been withheld, it was Moran’s defense, which Valenti contended was unnecessary.

“The Eagle had a duty to publish it to start this very debate that has followed,” said Valenti, who runs a news and commentary blog called Planet Valenti. “We have to decide in this case whether we believe in the First Amendment or we don’t.”

The first of these two paragraphs represents Valenti’s opinion, and though I strongly disagree with him, he’s welcome to it. But the second paragraph is just plain wrong. All of us enjoy the protections of the First Amendment — including The Berkshire Eagle, which had an absolute right under the First Amendment to publish Nikitas’ column, reject it or (my preferred option) use it as the basis for reporting on racism in the community.

Following Valenti’s logic, I shouldn’t be wasting my time on this blog post — I should be emailing Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial-page editor of The New York Times, demanding my First Amendment right to a regular column. Once a week would be fine; I like my day job and wouldn’t want to have to give it up.

Valenti expounds on his views of the First Amendment at some length in this recent post on the Confederate flag. As you might guess, he believes its display is protected by the First Amendment. And it is! Anyone can fly it on his or her private property. And everyone has a First Amendment right to urge the state government of South Carolina to remove it (or not) from public display. (For some reason Valenti is also very excited about the difference between various types of Confederate flags.)

By the way, Eagle editor Kevin Moran, whose column defending his decision to publish Nikitas’ column has been controversial in its own right, has been a busy guy lately. Anne Galloway of the nonprofit news site VT Digger reports that New England Newspapers Inc. — part of the incredible shrinking Digital First chain — laid off 10 editorial employees last Friday. Among the papers affected were the Eagle and Vermont’s Brattleboro Reformer, Bennington Banner and Manchester Journal. Moran is regional vice president of the papers.

No snark. Though I disagree with Moran’s decision to publish Nikitas’ column, his explanation shows that he did so with the best of intentions. And I’m sure he’s devastated by the cuts at these once-thriving newspapers.

More on The Berkshire Eagle and the racist column

Dan Glaun of MassLive.com follows up on The Berkshire Eagle’s decision to publish a racist screed by Pittsfield-based “conservative activist” Steven Nikitas. (My earlier post.)

Jim Bronson, chair of the Berkshire County Republican Association, which sponsors the “Right from the Berkshires” series of which Nikitas’ column was a part, concedes to Glaun that Nikitas’ language was “in artful” but denies that the piece was racist — and says he plans to respond to Eagle editor Kevin Moran’s criticism of the group in its next column.

Bronson adds that he read Nikitas’ column before it was submitted to the Eagle, but says he doesn’t know whether Nikitas is a member of his organization. Well, if Bronson doesn’t know, who would?

Then there’s this:

Bill Everhart, the Eagle’s editorial page editor, said that though he was not surprised by the outrage, he did not expect so much of it to be directed at the paper itself. Some critics, he said, may be unaware of the Eagle’s long history of progressivism and civil rights advocacy, and of its editorial board’s disagreement with Nikitas’ views.

Meanwhile, a site called Talking New Media publishes a commentary by D.B. Hubbard defending the Eagle’s decision to publish Nikitas’ column under the snarky headline “Berkshire Eagle editor explains to readers why papers print opinion pieces they may not agree with.”

Hubbard quotes a comment I posted on the Eagle’s website without identifying me and mistakenly writes that comments like mine led editor Kevin Moran to write his response. In fact, I posted my comment after Moran’s column was published, a tidbit easily gleaned by checking out the time stamps.

Berkshire Eagle publishes, defends a racist column

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See this follow-up post.

The venerable Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, founded in the 1890s and winner of the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, recently published a racist column by a “conservative activist” named Steven Nikitas. After outraged readers complained, editor Kevin Moran responded in a column of his own that though he vehemently disagreed with Nikitas’ screed, he considered it well worth publishing. Moran wrote:

Views and opinions — whether they be considered by some, most or all people to be ignorant or brilliant or somewhere in between — tell us a lot about the community in which we live, work, go to school, vote, debate, worship, pay taxes, make choices and decisions, etc.

That’s true. And a community paper like the Eagle should provide a public forum — to act as “a town square,” as Moran puts it. But it should also have standards for what it chooses to publish, and that’s where I think the Eagle blew it. Presumably Moran would not publish a column calling on white residents to burn crosses in order to drive their African-American neighbors out of the area. And no, Nikitas’ column isn’t as bad as that. But if you read it, you will see that it’s bad enough. Here is how Nikitas begins:

After the burning and looting in Baltimore and Ferguson we are seeing endless media hand-wringing that somehow “we” must all do something more to help black America. And “we” means white people, taxpayers, businesses, the criminal justice system, the universities and the government. But blacks must now pull themselves up. “We” have done far too much already with tens of trillions in handouts in the last 50 years, and it has backfired badly.

Conservatives and Republicans have offered sure-fire solutions for black America and they have been rejected repeatedly. Our advice has been for African-Americans to discard the leadership of the Democrat party and charlatans like Al Sharpton. After all, far-left liberalism has obviously failed. The proof is everywhere.

Conservatives have recommended over and over that blacks reform their culture from top to bottom by respecting marriage and the family and the law, returning to their churches, embracing education and hard work, avoiding violence and debased rap music, speaking clearly, shunning drugs and profanity, and pulling up their pants. And to stop blaming all of their problems on everyone else. That is immature, cowardly and counterproductive.

What respectable business owner would hire a young black male from the “hood” who won’t even show up for work? What successful enterprise is going to establish itself in crime-ridden inner cities? Isn’t looting and burning self-defeating?

And so it goes, for 750 words in total.

A few observations.

First, if your instinct is to argue that Nikitas has a First Amendment right to his opinion, my answer is yes, he certainly does. He should get a blog. The Eagle is not the government. It is a newspaper, and it has a First Amendment right to choose what to publish and what to reject. The Eagle has risked its brand and reputation for the sake of providing a platform for a racist screed.

The New Haven Independent, a nonprofit community news site that is the subject of my book “The Wired City,” offers a useful counterview: it screens comments before they are posted, and won’t publish those it considers racist. The policy begins: “Yes we do censor reader comments. We’ll continue to.” And these are comments, mind you, not full-blown columns.

Second, since we began talking about this on Twitter and Facebook Sunday (here’s the public Facebook link, where you’ll find a lively discussion), I’ve seen several people argue that the Eagle was providing a service by calling attention to a racist in the its midst. I find that argument ridiculous. You call attention to racism with reporting, not by providing a platform to a racist. Besides, racists are not particularly exotic; you can find them everywhere.

Third, this is a challenge for the Massachusetts Republican Party because, as Moran explains, Nikitas’ column is part of a regular series called “Right from the Berkshires” produced by members of the Berkshire County Republican Association. Will that group disavow Nikitas’ views? If not, will the state party disavow the regional group? I’ve already heard from one Republican activist who believes the state party should order the Berkshire group to stop using the party’s name.

I have a feeling that there’s going to be more to come. It’s already starting to circulate nationally — after I found out about it, I discovered that Talking Points Memo was already on it. It will be interesting to see where this goes from here.

Cuts are imminent at the ProJo and the New Haven Register

The redoubtable Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio reports that The Providence Journal may shed up to 40 jobs once an affiliate of GateHouse Media has completed its purchase of the paper. Donnis’ source is impeccable: the number is included in paperwork GateHouse filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Donnis does not say how many employees the Journal now has, and I was unable to find that number in recent coverage of the sale. I’ll add it if someone passes it along. Also, I assume that all 40 cuts will not be in the newsroom.

Also, Philip Eil of The Providence Phoenix takes a look (link now added) at what the sale means for the venerable paper. (Founded in 1829, the Journal bills itself as the oldest continuously published daily paper in the United States.)

In other dispiriting news, Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent reports that another round of deep cuts is imminent at the New Haven Register. Once part of the Journal Register Co., perhaps the worst newspaper chain in the country, and in more recent years a beacon of hope under Digital First impresario John Paton, the entire chain — which includes Massachusetts titles such as The Sun of Lowell, the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg and The Berkshire Eagle — is now believed to be for sale.

They Posted Clickbait So They’d All Get Rich. What Happened Next Made Them Cry.

WGBH forum
From left: Raney Aronson Rath, deputy executive producer of “Frontline,” who introduced the panel: moderator Joshua Benton, Tim O’Brien, Clay Shirky and Ethan Zuckerman. Photo by Lisa Palone via Twitter.

Cross-posted at WGBH News.

Have we reached the limits of clickbait media exemplified by The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed? According to three experts on Internet journalism, the answer is yes.

At a forum on the future of journalism held in WGBH’s Yawkey Theater on Wednesday, the consensus was that aggregating as many eyeballs as possible in order to show them advertising does not produce enough revenue to support quality journalism. Instead, news organizations like The New York Times are succeeding by persuading a small percentage of their audience to support them through subscription fees. (Click here for some tweets from the session.)

“One of the things that interests me is the end of the audience as a discrete category that can be treated as an aggregate,” said Clay Shirky of New York University. “Scale was the business model,” he said, describing the attitude among Web publishers as “‘At some point scale will play out.’ And it didn’t.”

As it turns out, Shirky continued, pushing people to “a hot new story” didn’t really matter that much. “What really matters,” he said, “is that there’s about 3 percent of that audience who really cares whether that newspaper lives or dies. We’re just at the beginning of that.”

Shirky and his fellow panelists — Tim O’Brien, publisher of Bloomberg View, and Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, moderated by Nieman Journalism Lab editor Joshua Benton — noted that the revenue model being pursued by the Times and others is essentially the same as the system that funds public media outlets such as WGBH, WBUR, NPR and the like.

O’Brien and Zuckerman disagreed over the need for mass media. O’Brien argued that the audience for an entertainment program can come up with ways of paying for it that don’t depend on attracting a larger audience. “We’re talking about different ways to finance passion,” he said.

To which Zuckerman retorted: “We’re not just talking about ‘Downton Abbey.’ We’re talking about news.” The challenge, Zuckerman said, is to find ways not just of funding journalism but of building enough of an audience so that investigative reporting at the local level can have enough clout to influence events.

Zuckerman also raised the issue of how news organizations do and don’t foster civic engagement, offering the example of the sudden closing of North Adams Regional Hospital in western Massachusetts. The closing put about 500 people out of work and left residents about 45 minutes away from the nearest emergency room.

Zuckerman praised the Berkshire Eagle’s coverage, but said the paper offered little sense of what the public could do. That, he said, would require “advocacy journalism” of the sort that makes traditional journalists uncomfortable.

That led to an observation by Shirky that newspaper editors are actually well-versed in telling their readers how to get involved when it comes to something like a theater review. Not only do readers learn whether the critic liked the play or not, but they are also told when and where it is being performed, how much tickets cost and how to buy them. But when covering a political story, Shirky continued, readers never learn how to make a donation or get involved.

Zuckerman said the problem is that news organizations don’t like to promote what-you-can-do measures when it comes to partisan politics.

By contrast, he added, news organizations have no issues with telling their audience how they can help after a natural disaster, explaining: “There is not a huge pro-hurricane constituency.”