Contrarian Boston reports that The Sun is no longer shining in Lowell

The Sun left its iconic downtown headquarters quite a while ago, but it maintained offices in Lowell until recently. Photo (cc) 2014 by Dan Kennedy.

So where are the missing MediaNews Group dailies? Last week, I noted that Contrarian Boston couldn’t find any evidence that the Boston Herald had returned to its Braintree offices, two years after Northeastern journalism student Deanna Schwartz and I found that the Herald had decamped for The Sun in Lowell.

Now, in a follow-up, Mark Pickering reports for Contrarian Boston that The Sun is nowhere to be found, either. He writes:

For the city of Lowell, the disappearance of The Sun marks the end of an entire era. For decades, the publishers of such papers were local kings that often built impressive headquarters. And the papers were the prime way for residents to keep up with local news.

Pickering asks: Have the Herald and The Sun joined a number of other newspapers part of MediaNews Group, owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, that no longer have any newsrooms at all? The answer to that question is not entirely clear.

One story I’ve heard is that the Alden papers in Massachusetts have a warehouse in Westford. (Update: Or perhaps in Devens.) Papers are delivered from whatever printing plant they’re using these days before being trucked out. I’ve heard there are a few offices there that Alden journalists can use. But it appears that Alden journalists, for the most part, work at their homes except when they’re out reporting.

And let’s not forget that another MediaNews Group paper, the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg, was deprived of its offices several years before the pandemic. That means that all three of the chain’s Massachusetts papers are operating without a proper newsroom.

Clarification: I’ve now noted in the caption that The Sun left its iconic downtown headquarters years ago.

Two years after leaving Braintree, the Boston Herald has still not returned

This photo was provided to Media Nation in August 2020 by a trusted source.

More than two years ago, Northeastern journalism student Deanna Schwartz — at the time an intern at GBH News’ “Beat the Press — learned that the Boston Herald had moved from its headquarters in Braintree to The Sun of Lowell. Both papers are owned by MediaNews Group, which in turn is owned by the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

On Sunday, Mark Pickering and Scott Van Voorhis reported in Contrarian Boston that the Herald has not returned to Braintree. “The Herald? They’re long gone. Long gone,” according to one person who was interviewed. Frankly, I didn’t think coming back was in the cards. The question in my mind is whether they’re working at The Sun or out of their homes. Does anyone want to share that information? I’ll post an update.

The Boston Herald unveils a subtle print redesign

The print edition of the Boston Herald has been redesigned. It seems pretty subtle. The only difference I can detect on the front is that the headline type is blockier.

Executive editor Joe Dwinell calls it a “sharper look” that offers “a much richer reading experience.”

Some of the headlines now appear in italics.

The news section looks cleaner. Staff reporters have their email addresses listed.

The Herald’s last full redesign, as I recall, came in 1998. The paper was remade to look like a tabloid version of USA Today, and it was beautifully done. Over the next few years, as circulation began to slide, the paper was tarted up. I don’t know if I’d call this a complete redesign, but it appears to be an improvement.

In Lexington, a slice of local newspaper history

I thought you might enjoy a little slice of local newspaper history that I dug up Tuesday while doing some research. Mike Rosenberg of The Bedford Citizen once told me that Alan Adams, the former owner of the Lexington Minuteman and, eventually, five other papers, had a building named after him. Today I located the building and learned a little bit about Adams.

First, the building. It’s right next to the Minuteman Bikeway in the center of Lexington, across Meriam Street from the Lexington Visitors Center on the other side of the street. It’s pretty nondescript if you view it from the bikeway, since you’re looking at the side of the building. From Mudge, though, it’s quite striking — white and brick with four large white columns, with “Adams Building” written across the top. It has long ceased to serve as a newspaper headquarters and today mainly comprises professional offices.

Adams died in 1975 at the age of 70. According to his obituary in The Boston Globe, he began working at the Lexington Minuteman (also known variously as the Minute-man, or the Minute-Man) in 1930, and bought the paper in 1932. He also served as a local politico. Among other things, he chaired the Republican Town Committee and held elected office as a town selectman. Presumably he got good press. Obviously it’s not the sort of conflict that anyone would tolerate today, but it wasn’t that uncommon at the time.

From Richard Kollen’s history of Lexington. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume this photo isn’t protected by copyright.

According to a 2004 book by Lexington historian Richard Kollen titled “Lexington: From Liberty’s Birthplace to Progressive Suburb,” Adams used the Minuteman’s pages during World War II to promote wartime measures such as keeping the lights turned off at night so that the pilots of any incoming German bombers wouldn’t be able to see their targets. Adams also admonished his fellow townspeople for not taking those precautions seriously enough, once writing: “Seven stores were reported with unsatisfactory preparations and … all too many houses have not taken care of their porch lights properly.”

Adams sold his papers in 1971, according to the Globe obit. I’m not sure what their immediate fate was, but I know that at some point they were combined with another local chain called Beacon. The Beacon-Minuteman Corp., based in Acton, was eventually acquired by Fidelity’s Community Newspaper Co., then by Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell, and then GateHouse Media, which merged several years ago with Gannett.

Today the Lexington Minuteman is a shell of what it once was, though it was among a handful of Gannett weeklies that escaped being targeted for shutdown or a merger during a recent round of cost-cutting. Adams himself represented a different era in local journalism — one that was ethically lax in some respects, but that served as the voice of the community in ways that we rarely see anymore.

False rumors about Wu’s mental health recall attacks on Michael Dukakis in 1988

Then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1987. Photo (cc) City of Boston Archives.

Today’s Boston Globe story about the right-wing whispering campaign suggesting that Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has suffered from serious panic attacks while in office (there is no evidence) calls to mind the rumors about Michael Dukakis’ mental health that circulated during his 1988 presidential campaign.

Dukakis’ Republican opponent, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, helmed one of the dirtiest campaigns in the modern era. Everyone remembers the racist Willie Horton ad, but there were also rumors — grounded in nothing — that Dukakis suffered from depression.

As recalled in this retrospective by Dylan Scott in Stat News, President Ronald Reagan got in on the act, pushing into the mainstream a conspiracy theory that emanated from LaRouchie right:

In early August, in those pre-Twitter days, Reagan made the gossip front-page news. The president said at a White House press conference, in response to a question about Dukakis, that he didn’t want to “pick on an invalid.”

Reagan quickly apologized, but the story was off and running. The New York Times and Washington Post wrote editorials denouncing the attacks. The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Miami Herald published lengthy stories about the rumors and their source.

Dukakis’ 17-point polling lead over Bush collapsed, and, of course, Bush went on to win that November. As Dukakis said, “you don’t drop eight points in a week for nothing.”

The claim may have resonated because there was just enough there for the conspiracists to dig into. Dukakis’ wife, Kitty Dukakis, had long suffered from depression, and, as the Stat piece noted, biographies of Dukakis said that “he had been unhappy after his brother died in 1973 and, again in 1978, after he lost his reelection for governor.” Nothing unusual about that, of course.

So, too, with Wu. Her mother has struggled with mental illness. And in January the Globe published a story that included this line: “A decade ago, when Wu first mentioned to someone outside her close circle that she was considering a run for office, she had a panic attack; she had to walk across the room and crouch down to calm herself.” In other words, years ago and hardly unusual behavior — and also a long way from landing in the hospital, as the current rumors claim.

The false rumors about Wu have almost but not quite broken into the mainstream, according to the Globe’s Emma Platoff. Greg Hill of WEEI Radio (93.7 FM) mentioned them sympathetically, perhaps unaware that there was nothing to them. Platoff also cites a column in late January by the Boston Herald’s Joe Battenfeld, who wrote: “Unfortunately for the Harvard-educated Wu, there isn’t an Ivy League seminar or class to learn how to grapple with these anxiety-inducing problems.” But having read Battenfeld’s column in its entirety, I don’t agree that he was making any reference to the rumors.

One unanswerable question about all this is whether a major media outlet like the Globe should amplify the rumors. Platoff addresses that:

There are those who believe this Globe story will worsen the problem. Experts say it can be a mistake to mention this kind of misinformation in a reputable newspaper; that even debunking a rumor grants it oxygen. But as this false claim spreads through the city’s power centers, it has already leaked into public discourse. And the mayor, who has been open about her mother’s struggle with schizophrenia, was glad to correct the record, saying it was important to call out both mental health stigma and misinformation.

She also quotes Wu herself, who says it’s better to address the rumors head-on than to let them fester. “I want to be transparent about the presence of these tactics, even today, because we need to acknowledge it to be able to change it,” Wu told Platoff. “It does feel connected to larger trends in politics and international politics: If you just repeat something that’s false enough times, at least you can sow a little doubt in the broader public’s mind. And that’s a really dangerous place to be.”

I don’t know whether putting it out there is a good idea or not. As Wu herself acknowledges, it’s already partly out there, so perhaps it’s better to address it head-on. Still, people are going to believe what they want to believe. We are long past the time when facts made any difference. We weren’t even there in 1988.

Financial prospects keep sliding as Gannett prepares to shift away from local

Photo (cc) 2009 by Kevin Walsh

Gannett’s recent move away from local news is not taking place in a vacuum. Financial prospects for the country’s largest newspaper chain continue to deteriorate — and the company’s insistence on degrading its journalism rather than building it up is going to make it that much harder to attract new readers.

As I reported last week, the chain is reassigning staff reporters at most of its Massachusetts weeklies to cover regional beats rather than local news. Although Gannett officials have not commented, I’m told that the three exceptions will be the Cambridge Chronicle, the Old Colony Memorial in Plymouth and the Provincetown Banner. I’m also told that a few weekly reporters will be reassigned to Gannett’s dailies rather than to regional coverage of issues such as climate change and racial justice.

What we still don’t know is what, if any, coverage the Gannett weeklies will provide of such basics as governmental meetings and elections. Maybe part-timers will be used. Maybe they’ll just skip it. There were already a number of Gannett weeklies without any real local coverage, so that’s nothing new.

Meanwhile, the chain’s business continues to slide at its 100 or so daily newspapers and 1,000 weeklies and other properties, according to Poynter business analyst Rick Edmonds. Revenue for the fourth quarter was $827 million, a decline of 5.5%, as its much-ballyhooed increase in digital subscriptions appears to be driven by steep introductory discounts.

Edmonds writes that “as Gannett targets reaching 2 to 2.2 million digital subscriptions by the end of 2022, it faces the double challenge of holding the introductory subscribers as they move up to higher rates while also continuing to quickly add new subscribers.” And rather than invest in journalism, Gannett is putting money into sports gambling and marketing services.

And NFTs.

It’s an ugly tale. For Massachusetts readers, it’s a tale that extends back to the early 1990s, when Fidelity began rolling up community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts. From Fidelity to the Boston Herald to GateHouse Media, which morphed into Gannett, it’s been 30 years of cuts, with very little in the way of good news.

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Federal judge rules that a headline calling someone a ‘spy’ can be protected opinion

Is it permissible to call someone an Iranian spy if the facts are somewhat more nuanced than that? Apparently the answer is yes — at least according to U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs.

Burroughs recently dismissed a libel claim brought in Boston by Kaveh Afrasiabi against United Press International and Struan Stevenson, writing that an article written by Stevenson, whose headline referred to Afrasiabi as an “Iranian spy,” was a matter of clearly labeled opinion, which is protected by the First Amendment. I learned about the case from Adam Gaffin, who wrote about it at Universal Hub last Friday.

There are a lot of fascinating details in Burroughs’ opinion. Most of it is based on long-settled law that opinion is protected as long as there is some factual support for it, or if it cannot be proven true or false. Afrasiabi’s complaint was based on the headline, “Iranian spy arrested by FBI was wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Burroughs found that “wolf in sheep’s clothing” was pure opinion, whereas the reference to him as a spy was a matter of opinion grounded at least in part in the factual record as well as because the entire piece was opinion.

“Although the term ‘spy’ is arguably capable of being proved false, the phrase ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ plainly is not,” she wrote. “Given that the term ‘Iranian spy’ is followed by ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing,’ the entire headline, read together as it must be, is clearly a statement of opinion.”

Moreover, Afrasiabi has been charged with failing to register with the U.S. government under the terms of the Foreign Agent Registration Act. Afrasiabi has asserted that he never engaged in espionage against the United States.

As Gaffin observes, the judge’s ruling also references a Boston Herald case involving the suicide of Brad Delp, lead singer of the band Boston, which found that you can’t go looking for nuance in headlines. Quoting from that decision, she wrote: “A newspaper need not choose the most delicate word available in constructing its headline; it is permitted some drama in grabbing its reader’s attention, so long as the headline remains a fair index of what is accurately reported below.”

Here is the heart of Judge Burroughs’ decision, which found that Stevenson laid out the facts, allowing readers to determine whether they agreed with the headline or not:

Because Mr. Stevenson accurately presented the facts surrounding Dr. Afrasiabi’s background, arrest, and criminal charges in the Article, neither he nor UPI can be held liable for defamation based on his opinion that those facts render Dr. Afrasiabi an “Iranian spy” and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” … Put slightly differently, because the Article permits the reader to form his or her own opinion about whether the facts presented make Dr. Afrasiabi a “spy” and/or “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the statement is not actionable.

Finally: What, may you ask, is UPI these days? Does it have anything to do with the UPI of the 20th century, which for decades was The Associated Press’ main rival? The answer is no, not really.

According to Wikipedia, which seems to have the most up-to-date information, UPI today is part of News World Communications, which in turn was founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church. News World used to own The Washington Times as well, but that paper is now owned by a different Moon entity.

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Digital drives a circulation increase at the Globe while the Herald keeps sliding

The Boston Globe’s strategy of focusing on digital subscriptions is paying off, according to the latest figures from the Alliance for Audited Media. For the six-month period ending on March 31 of this year, the Globe’s paid weekday circulation was 331,482, up 81,201, or 32%, over the same period a year earlier. On Sundays, the Globe’s paid circulation was 387,312, up 73,347, or 23%.

The increase came despite the continued shrinkage of the print edition. Weekday print was 77,679, a decline of 16%. Sunday print is 135,696, down nearly 15%. Paid digital now accounts for nearly 77% of the Globe’s circulation on weekdays and 65% on Sundays — numbers that no doubt had a lot to do with the hunger for local and regional news during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The numbers were not nearly as rosy at the Boston Herald, which has been gutted by its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital. Paid weekday circulation, print and digital, is now 56,791, a decline of 9,686, or more than 14%. Sunday circulation is 58,461, down 14%. Digital is essentially flat, with nearly all of the decrease coming from the Herald’s fading print product. The Herald today sells an average of 22,032 print papers every weekday and 25,892 on Sundays.

The new circulation figures at the Globe and the Herald come amid a massive decline in print circulation nationwide. According to the Press Gazette, a British website that covers the news business, print circulation of the top 25 U.S. dailies fell from 4.2 million to 3.4 million over the past year, a decline of 20%.

Especially harrowing was USA Today, which lost 303,000, or 62%. As we all know, the paper is highly dependent on hotel distribution, which took a massive hit during the pandemic. Gannett recently announced that some of USA Today’s content would move behind a paywall.

Correction: I botched one of the numbers and have updated this post.

How FCC ownership regulations helped shape the Boston media landscape

Photo (cc) 2008 by Dan Kennedy

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously upheld a 2017 ruling by the FCC to loosen media ownership regulations, including an end to the so-called cross-ownership ban. That ban prohibits one entity from owning a newspaper and a TV or radio station in the same market.

The FCC’s long, tortured history on cross-ownership shaped the Boston media scene from the 1950s through the ’80s. Although the ban wasn’t formalized until 1975, the FCC had much to say about the issue well before that. No one told the story better than John Aloysius Farrell in his 2001 book “Tip O’Neill and the Democratic Century,” which I wrote about for The Boston Phoenix.

It’s a pretty amazing tale, and it’s crucial if you want to understand how the dynamic between The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald played out over the course of those decades. The very short version: the Boston Herald Traveler, with the support of the Kennedys, obtained the license to Channel 5 in the 1950s through corrupt means. The Globe, with the help of O’Neill, then a young congressman, exposed that corruption. That, in turn, led to the Herald’s losing the license to Channel 5 in the early 1970s, thus cementing the Globe’s status as the city’s dominant daily newspaper.

The final act played out in the late 1980s when Rupert Murdoch, who then owned the Herald, bought Channel 25 and sought a waiver from the FCC that would have allowed him to keep both. Sen. Ted Kennedy slipped an amendment into a bill that made it virtually impossible for the FCC to grant such a waiver. Several years later Murdoch sold the Herald to Pat Purcell, a longtime lieutenant. Although the Herald enjoyed a few years of prosperity under Purcell, it eventually entered a long, slow decline, ending in bankruptcy and the sale to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital in 2018.

So now that the cross-ownership ban is gone, what’s next? A number of organizations, including the media-reform group Free Press, opposed the FCC’s move, arguing that it will make it more difficult for local groups, including those representing women and people of color, to acquire media outlets. I agree, although there’s also a case to be made that newspapers and, to some extent, broadcast media are so moribund that ownership regulations are more about the last century than this one.

It does seem likely to me that we’re going to see newsrooms that combine newspaper and broadcast operations in an attempt to save money. We’ll see less diversity and less coverage as a result. But given that virtually all media have shifted to the unregulated internet, the ultimate effect of such consolidation is yet to be determined.

Alden Global Capital wants to take another big bite out of Tribune Publishing

The iconic Chicago Tribune Tower, sold for mixed-use development in 2016.

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It looks like 2020 is going to end on a suitably terrible note for the future of local and regional news.

The New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital, notorious for depriving its newspaper chain of staff, resources and even office space, is planning to make a play for majority control of Tribune Publishing Co., which owns such storied titles as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and New York’s Daily News. The Wall Street Journal broke the news on Wednesday.

Alden has owned 32% of Tribune for a while and, as Julie Reynolds reports for the union publication NewsMatters, has essentially been calling the shots. She writes:

The hedge fund has left its classic stamp of profiteering across the news chain’s operations — letting Tribune’s digital efforts flounder where other chains have thrived, shutting down newsrooms and offices after defaulting on rent, slashing reporter and other staff pay during the pandemic crisis, and now being sued by shareholders — all while Alden’s officers on the board are handsomely rewarded for this “performance.”

As Reynolds notes, Tribune has been closing newsrooms — including just this week at the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published daily paper in the country, according to Western Mass. Politics & Insight. The move comes not long after the Courant outsourced its printing to The Republican of Springfield.

Alden’s own MediaNews Group papers have been shutting newsrooms as well. In Massachusetts, the Enterprise & Sentinel of Fitchburg was rendered homeless several years ago. During the summer, Northeastern journalism student (and “Beat the Press” intern) Deanna Schwartz and I learned that the Braintree office of MNG’s Boston Herald had apparently closed, with operations moved to The Sun of Lowell, another MNG property.

Of course, it’s at least theoretically possible that new newsrooms will be found for some of these papers after the pandemic has ended. A number of papers — including The Boston Globe — have kept their offices even though nearly all of their employees are working from home. That’s an expensive proposition. Still, it would hardly be a surprise if Alden decides that what few journalists it still employs can work from home indefinitely.

That would be a mistake. News organizations, like most businesses, thrive on collaboration and ideas that bubble up from teamwork. Then again, there is no sign that Alden executives care.

Tribune’s daily newspapers are, for the most part, larger and have more vitality than MNG’s collection of dailies and weeklies. The metros that MNG publishes, such as The Denver Post, The Mercury News of San Jose and the Orange County Register, have already been trashed beyond recognition. Earlier this fall, Larry Ryckman, co-founder of the start-up Colorado Sun, said at a conference that at one time the Post and its now-defunct daily competitor, the Rocky Mountain News, employed about 600 journalists. Today, he said, the Post has about 60.

If Alden succeeds in grabbing majority control of Tribune, it will represent the latest step down in a long fall that began with its acquisition by the foul-mouthed Chicago real-estate mogul Sam Zell in 2008. The Zell years were the subject of a monumental takedown by the late New York Times media columnist David Carr in 2010, with Carr describing a culture that “came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk.” Oh, and they were pillaging the company, too.

Later, under new owners, the company was renamed tronc Inc. — and yes, that’s a lowercase “t” that you see.

In 2018, the billionaire surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong managed to wrest the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune from tronc’s clutches. And though the Soon-Shiong era has not been without bumps in the road (including an ugly internal dispute over racial justice), his wealth has given his papers a future.

As for the papers now controlled or soon to be controlled by Alden Global Capital, the future is likely to be nasty and brutish, to take John Locke Thomas Hobbes out of context. Whether it will also be short remains to be seen.