Radio for the people: Providing a voice for Boston’s communities of color

My friend Donna Halper has a great suggestion for how Boston can help bridge the racial divide that continues to define our city and region: bring back local radio that serves the African-American community. The Boston Globe today follows up its recent Spotlight Team series on race, “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality.,” with some ideas from its readers. (And kudos to the Globe for dropping the paywall.) Here is what Halper, a Lesley University professor and longtime radio consultant, has to say:

A professor said that Boston’s media landscape may suffer from the lack of a prominent local radio station that’s black-owned. Boston used to have a station owned by black community members, WILD, but under new corporate ownership it stopped focusing on African-American issues a number of years ago.

“In most cities with a sizable black population, there have been local radio stations around which the community could rally,” wrote Donna L. Halper, an associate professor at Lesley University. “These stations were not just about playing the hits; they were a focus of information and news that the so-called ‘mainstream’ stations didn’t usually address.”

Black-owned media, such as the Bay State Banner newspaper, have had trouble generating significant advertising support, she said, and “a thriving black media would go a long way towards making the black community feel as if its story is being told.

“Relying on the ‘mainstream’ media often means the only time stories of your neighborhood get told is when crimes are committed,” Halper said. “White Bostonians have long held inaccurate ideas about black Bostonians because more often than not, the only stories widely reported depicted danger and criminality.”

(Note: In 1997, during my Boston Phoenix days, I wrote about WILD’s struggle to survive as an independent radio station in the face of corporate consolidation unleashed by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.)

Now, if I were reading Halper’s comments and wanted to follow up, the first person I’d talk with is Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news operation that is still thriving after 12 years. When I was writing about the Independent for my book “The Wired City,” the Independent had a mostly white reporting staff to cover a city with a large African-American community. They did a good job, but it wasn’t ideal.

The Independent’s staff is more diverse today. Even more important, though, is that in 2015 Bass launched a nonprofit low-power FM radio station, WNHH, which also broadcasts online. Rather than writing stories for New Haven’s communities of color, members of those communities have come inside to host programs and tell their own stories. It has proved to be a real boon to New Haven. And though it would be hard to replicate something like that in a city as large as Boston, there surely must be ways to adapt what Bass is doing.

More: Of course Touch 106.1 FM is already providing a valuable service in Boston — but without an FCC license. The city needs a community radio station that can operate legally and can thus enjoy a higher profile and more influence. Also popping up in the Facebook comments: Zumix, a youth-oriented bilingual LPFM and online station in East Boston.

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With the Herald changing hands, here are five updated ideas for making it better

Photo by Emily Judem for WGBH News

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

If I had a nickel for every time someone predicted the death of the Boston Herald over the past 25 years, I would have — well, many nickels. So I see last week’s announcement by Herald owner Pat Purcell that he plans to sell his paper to GateHouse Media as just one more bump in what has been an exceedingly bumpy road.

GateHouse, a national chain that owns more than 100 community weeklies and dailies in Eastern Massachusetts and environs, has given little indication of what it intends to do with the city’s number two paper. First the Herald has to go through bankruptcy, and though it’s likely GateHouse will end up with the tabloid, there is no guarantee.

What we do know is that a GateHouse-owned Herald will be smaller. Preliminary reports suggest that the staff will be cut from 240 to 175 across all departments. That is going to have a huge impact on the Herald’s newsgathering capacity, as the newsroom accounts for about half of that 240. On the other hand, a daily newspaper with 175 employees should still be able to do good work and provide at least some competition to The Boston Globe.

Twelve years ago, as The Boston Phoenix’s media columnist, I offered five suggestions for how the Herald could improve and build a more sustainable business. With the Herald changing ownership for the first time since 1994, when Purcell bought it from his mentor Rupert Murdoch, I thought I’d take a look at what I had to say in 2005 and see whether any of it is relevant today.

1. Get smart. This is probably the single most important step that GateHouse could take in trying to appeal to new readers. More than 20 years ago, a journalist who had left the paper told me something he’d once said to Purcell. It went approximately like this: You’ve already got all the stupid readers, Pat. You need to find a few smart ones as well.

Unfortunately, Purcell never really took that advice. From the mid-1990s until the early 2000s, the Herald thrived on the strength of strong local news coverage, an aggressive business section, an excellent sports section, and good photography. But as the economics of newspapering began to crater, the Herald embraced a flash-and-trash approach while continuing to get smaller.

In recent years, under editor Joe Sciacca, the sensationalism has been toned down considerably, and the daily report is solid if shrunken. But the goal seemed to be to hang onto the paper’s shrinking pool of existing readers rather than try to cultivate, say, the young workers in Boston’s growing innovation economy — many of whom may not be as liberal on economic issues as the Globe thinks they are and who would thus be open to an alternative.

2. Upgrade the look. Twelve years ago I wrote: “Newcomers to Boston no doubt are perplexed when they hear old-timers refer to the Herald as ‘the Record.’ That’s a reference to the Record American, a Hearst-owned tabloid from a bygone era that, along with several other papers, eventually morphed into the modern Herald. Trouble is, the Herald really does look like the Record, if the Record could be exhumed, updated a bit, and printed in color.”

Unfortunately, nothing has changed. Today, as I did then, I would recommend a makeover along the lines of (for instance) the Boston Business Journal, an attractive tabloid that takes a more restrained approach. The old urban tab look is perfect if you’re looking for something to fold up and take with you to Suffolk Downs — provided you’re going to the horse races. Now the city hopes the Suffolk Downs property will become Amazon’s second headquarters. GateHouse ought to be thinking about how to design a Herald that will appeal to the sort of young, highly educated folks who would work there — a sizable group even if Amazon ultimately picks another city.

3. Turn right. Despite the Herald’s reputation as a bastion of right-wing Trumpery, the paper’s editorial pages have long been rather staid and moderate. The right-wing reputation comes from a few of its news columnists, especially Howie Carr, who’s long since slid into self-parody; Joe Fitzgerald, a former sportswriter who traffics in snoozy social conservatism; and Adriana Cohen, who recycles seemingly every talking point from Fox News, including the network’s outrageous attacks on the FBI.

The opinion pages, on the other hand, carry respectable syndicated conservatives like Jonah Goldberg, George Will, and Michael Gerson, as well as local voices like freelancer Jim Sullivan, who rarely writes about politics. What would help is if editorial-page editor Shelly Cohen recruited some young, smart, conservative local columnists. Surely there’s some recent college graduate out there who wants to be the next Ben Shapiro or Tomi Lahren who’d be willing to work for a low salary and a shot at Twitter immortality. Unfortunately for the Herald, now as then, the best conservative columnist in Boston is Jeff Jacoby — a Herald alumnus who left the paper for the Globe many years ago.

4. Dump the website. I first made this recommendation on the grounds that the Herald simply didn’t translate well online — it was a quick read that people flip through on the subway or at Dunkin’ Donuts just before they go to work. Today’s smaller Herald is an even quicker read. Besides, the Herald’s website is not exactly a joy to navigate, though its mobile app is decent.

What I hadn’t anticipated 12 years ago was that the Herald would launch an internet radio station that has become an integral part of the paper’s identity. The problem is that it is essentially an old-fashioned conservative talk station, and people listen to talk radio in their cars, most of which are not especially well suited to streaming audio. But it has been a worthwhile experiment, and GateHouse should continue with it.

5. Live free or die? Purcell never wanted to take this step, though there was some buzz that he might when the free commuter tab Metro first came to Boston. I thought a free Herald could make sense; certainly it’s a better read than the Metro. Moreover, the Herald relies on point-of-purchase sales, and there are simply fewer places to buy newspapers than there used to be.

The trend in newspapers these days is to charge as much as the market will bear, either in print or online. Persuading readers to pay for journalism is essential given the collapse of digital advertising (for anyone other than Facebook and Google) and the ongoing decline of print advertising. But what little advertising value remains in newspapers is all on the print side. And if GateHouse can cut expenses enough (probably the one thing the compay is really, really good at), it might be able to turn a profit with a free Herald.

Last week’s announcement that the Herald would be sold was good news in the sense that Boston will continue to have two daily papers. But it’s sad, too, because a lot of people will be losing their jobs, and the likelihood is that the Herald is going to offer less. “More newspapers mean more coverage,” wrote Herald sports columnist Steve Buckley over the weekend. “More newspapers mean more opinions. And listen up, Globe: More newspapers mean more hustle. If we lose the Herald, the Globe will lose something as well.”

So, too, will all of us.

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Errol Morris’ wonderful portrait of Cambridge photographer Elsa Dorfman

Elsa Dorfman. Photo copyright © 2010 by Tim Kennedy. All rights reserved.

Last weekend we had a chance to see “The B-Side,” Errol Morris’ wonderful documentary about the Cambridge portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman. I know Elsa through her husband, Harvey Silverglate, my friend and occasional collaborator. She also once took our family’s picture for a Boston Phoenix article. Our son, Tim, took Elsa’s photo a few years ago when he was attending photography school.

Dorfman is warm and outgoing, and her photos reflect that. Now mostly retired, she is best known for her work with a large-format Polaroid camera that takes 20-by-24-inch photos. And though she is known for her portraits of artists such as Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, she’s also taken photos of literally hundreds of ordinary families who found their way to her studio. In the film, she comes across as intensely proud and self-aware, yet still the same person who once sold her photos out of a shopping cart in Harvard Square.

Here’s some backstory that the film does not explain: Several years ago Morris wrote a book about Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Army doctor serving a life prison term after being convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and young children. The book brought Morris into contact with Silverglate and Dorfman, as Silverglate is a member of MacDonald’s legal team. As Morris’ book, “A Wilderness of Error,” clearly shows, MacDonald did not receive a fair trial and may actually be innocent. (I reviewed the book for BookForum.)

Morris is a master storyteller, and Dorfman is an ideal subject. As Richard Brody wrote recently in The New Yorker, Dorfman is “a remarkable presence, a cinematic character whose comments distill a lifetime of wisdom, self-awareness, frustration, and survivor’s pride.” Go see it.

LGBTQ history group to honor Susan Ryan-Vollmar

Susan Ryan-Vollmar
Susan Ryan-Vollmar

I am incredibly excited about this: On Wednesday, October 5, my friend Susan Ryan-Vollmar will be honored by the History Project for her pioneering leadership role in the history of the Boston LGBTQ community.

Susan, who currently runs her own communications consulting business, is a former news editor of the Boston Phoenix and a former editor of the LGBTQ paper Bay Windows. We worked together at the Phoenix for many years, and her time as news editor was the most rewarding and fun period of my 14-year stint.

It was Susan who oversaw Kristen Lombardi’s groundbreaking 2001 coverage of the pedophile-priest crisis in the Catholic Church. It was Susan who led the charge in the Phoenix‘s reporting on same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. And it was Susan who excelled at finding the lede in my stories—usually in the third-to-last paragraph of a 3,000-word screed.

From the press release:

From her role in helping bring to light the Boston Archdiocese’s coverup of the sexual abuse of children by priests, to her role as editor of Bay Windows during the public debates on marriage equality in Massachusetts, and her support of LGBTQ movements and issues, Susan displays a consistent dedication to advocacy for the LGBTQ community and a passion for uncovering and exposing the truth. The History Project celebrates the often unacknowledged lives of LGBTQ people throughout history; as the world celebrates those who built upon Susan’s solid, quieter work, we are thrilled to honor her as a true HistoryMaker.

The event will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. at Club Café, at 209 Columbus Ave. in Boston. I’m honored to say that I’ll have a small role. You can buy your tickets by clicking here.

Somehow, the Boston Herald keeps on keeping on

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Murdoch to the rescue: December 3, 1982

Chris Sweeney has written a sharp piece for Boston magazine on the state of the Boston Herald, the city’s number-two daily. As is generally the case with stories about the Herald, the overarching theme is: How much longer can the struggling tabloid cling to life?

And yet I wonder if that’s the right question. For a decade starting in the mid-1990s, I covered the Herald‘s ups and downs as the media columnist for the Boston Phoenix. If I had a dime for every person who told me the Herald had six months to live, I’d be a very rich man. Sadly, it was the Phoenix that didn’t survive.

As Sweeney notes, the Herald these days seems more like an extension of its online radio station than a standalone newspaper. Nearly two years ago editor Joe Sciacca gave me a tour of the paper’s new headquarters in South Boston, and I was impressed with what I saw—especially the amount of space devoted to multimedia and to the modern radio facilities.

My WGBH colleague Jim Braude tells Sweeney that not many people may be listening to Boston Herald Radio (OK, Braude’s actual quote is “I don’t think anyone listens”). But Braude also points out that it’s given the Herald a jolt of relevance in terms of high-profile guests like Mayor Marty Walsh, Governor Charlie Baker, and Donald Trump, whose appearances can then be written up and tweeted out.

Unfortunately, none of the top three executives at the Herald would speak with Sweeney, a group that comprises publisher Pat Purcell, Sciacca, and executive editor John Strahinich. It would have been useful to get some insights from them regarding the Herald‘s current business model. Not that I’m faulting Sweeney—I’ve been there. And his description of trying to get Strahinich to talk is pretty amusing.

But even though print circulation has shrunk precipitously and print advertising revenue is presumably scarce, the Herald does have some strengths. Sweeney does not report the size of the staff, but it’s small and therefore affordable. The sports section is very good. The website is slow and frustrating, but the third-party mobile app is excellent—and includes one-click access to Herald Radio. Purcell made a lot of money selling off the old headquarters in the South End; the Herald is now printed by the Boston Globe, which means that its larger competitor has every reason to keep its rival breathing.

So how long can the Herald survive? Keep those dimes rolling in.

The Boston connection to the Las Vegas newspaper deal

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Yes, I really own this rare memento.

Congratulations to the staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which fearlessly revealed Wednesday night that the money behind its new owner is casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. Adelson is not normally the shy, retiring type, but in this case he tried to keep his ownership interest a secret. Predictably, his cover was blown within days.

So my conspiracy theory that the sale involved some sort of a shell game being played by New Media and its sister company, GateHouse Media (which will continue to manage the Review-Journal), proved not to be the case. But there is an interesting Boston alt-weekly angle to all this that’s worth keeping an eye on.

As had been reported earlier in the week by the Review-Journal and others, a newspaper executive named Michael Schroeder is listed as a manager of News + Media Capital Group, the newly formed company that bought the Review-Journal and several smaller papers for $140 million. And Schroeder, whose holdings include Connecticut’s New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, is the former publisher of BostonNOW, a free tabloid that competed briefly with Metro Boston.

The founder of BostonNOW was a well-known local entrepreneur, Russel Pergament, who began his career as an ad salesman extraordinaire for The Real Paper, which competed with The Boston Phoenix during the 1970s. Pergament later founded the Tab chain of high-quality community weeklies in Boston’s western suburbs.

During the ’90s Pergament sold out to Fidelity, which was then amassing a Greater Boston chain of weeklies known as Community Newspaper Company, or CNC. Fidelity eventually sold CNC to Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell, who turned around several years later and offloaded them to GateHouse Media, based in Fairport, New York, a suburb of Rochester. Pergament’s creation still survives, sort of, in the form of GateHouse-owned papers like the Newton Tab. Perversely, the Tab papers are not longer tabs.

After folding BostonNOW, Pergament moved to New York, where he started a similar free tabloid called AMNewYork—which, like BostonNOW, competed with the local version of Metro.

Will Pergament, through his connection with Schroeder, have any involvement in News + Media? Here’s what the Review-Journal reported on Tuesday, before the Adelson connection was definitively confirmed:

Pergament, BostonNOW’s publisher and CEO, is CEO of NAN Holdings, a Massachusetts venture capital fund that helped finance the startup of Jewish News Service.

JNS has an exclusive agreement to distribute content from Israel Hayom, an Israeli newspaper owned by Adelson. Both JNS and Israel Hayom have been widely criticized for a perceived tilt in favor of far-right Israeli politicians.

Pergament has not responded to requests for comment.

Given that most observers believe Adelson wants to own the Review-Journal so that he can use it as a platform for his views on Israel—including strong support for the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—it’s not hard to imagine a role for Pergament somewhere. Indeed, he and Adelson are already business partners.

I’m going to email this to Pergament at the last known address I have for him and update it with his comments if he responds.

Correction: The original version of this post misstated the location of GateHouse Media’s headquarters.

The Boston Phoenix’s archives are coming to Northeastern

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Issue of Nov. 17, 2006

In case you haven’t heard, there’s big news about the late, great Boston Phoenix and its related properties — WFNX Radio, Boston After Dark, the Phoenix papers of Portland, Providence and Worcester, and Stuff and Stuff at Nite magazines.

On Friday, The Boston Globe reported that Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich is donating all of the archives to Northeastern University. The performance of the Phoenix’s website, which is still live, should improve over time. The long-term vision is even more exciting: We hope that every print edition of the Phoenix/Boston After Dark going back to 1966 will be digitized in a searchable format.

Mindich’s gift has been in the works for a year (I’ve dropped hints here and there), and we are finally able to go public. The Globe story is more than kind regarding my own modest role. I put Stephen together with Northeastern archivist Giordano Mecagni, and they did the rest. I am so proud of the 14 years I worked for Stephen, and I’m excited that this incredible resource will be available for years to come.

Here is an excerpt from Stephen’s farewell message, published in the Phoenix’s final issue on March 14, 2013:

What I can and will say is I am extremely proud, as all of you should be, of the highest standards of journalism we have set and maintained throughout the decades in all of our areas of coverage and the important role we have played in driving political and socially progressive and responsible agendas; in covering the worlds of arts and entertainment, food and fashion — always  with a critical view, while at the same time promoting their enormous importance in maintaining a healthy society; and in advocating for the recognition and acceptance of a wide range of lifestyles that are so valuable for a vibrant society.

An expanded role for me at WGBH News

Starting next week, I’ll be taking on an expanded role with WGBH News.

For some time now, I’ve been sharing blog posts with ’GBH. Now I’ll be writing a weekly (more or less) commentary that will be exclusive to WGBHNews.org — mostly on media, and frequently on how the presidential campaign is being covered. I’ll be popping up on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) from time to time as well. And I’ll still be on “Beat the Press.”

This is more of a tweak than a big change. Still, I’m thrilled to have a chance to do more and to work with the great team at ’GBH. Fun fact: I’ve been writing for WGBH News senior editor Peter Kadzis (a former editor of The Boston Phoenix) since 1991.

Presenting the 18th annual New England Muzzle Awards

Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 1.40.06 PMFrom fast-food chicken chain Chick-fil-A to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, everyone, it seems, has got a problem with free speech.

Please have a look at the 18th edition of the New England Muzzle Awards — launched in 1998 at the late, great Boston Phoenix and now hosted exclusively by WGBHNews.org. The Campus Muzzles, as always, are helmed by civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate.

The fate of The Boston Phoenix’s online archives

The fate of The Boston Phoenix’s online archives has been a matter of great concern to all of us who worked there. Some of us — me included — have hundreds of articles stored on the late alt-weekly’s servers with no other way to access them. (Yes, I know. Stupid me.)

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, former Phoenix contributor Valerie Vande Panne details some of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that’s been going on to try to save a vitally important piece of journalistic history. I’ve been involved in efforts to come up with a solution, and I’m hopeful we’ll have a good answer to this problem. Patience.