In late 2015 I traveled to Burlington and Montpelier, Vermont, to report on a heartening development: though Gannett had hollowed out the state’s major daily, the Burlington Free Press, several other news organizations had arisen to fill the gap.
VT Digger, a nonprofit website, and Vermont Public Radio were expanding. And towering above all was Seven Days, a thick alt-weekly with a vibrant website. As someone who had worked for many years at The Boston Phoenix, which closed in 2013, I was agog at the size of the staff and the number of ads. Somehow, Seven Days had become the largest news organization in the Burlington area. And it was turning a profit. As Paula Routly, the publisher, co-editor and co-owner told me in an interview for my book “The Return of the Moguls,” the paper had never lost money since its founding in 1995. She explained:
When the recession hit, we invested. That’s when we ramped up in news. And that is when the Free Press visibly diminished. They just made different business decisions. “Let’s make it smaller, let’s lay people off.” That’s where I think they made their mistake.
So it was great to see Seven Days get prominent mention by The Daily Beast in a round-up of alt-weeklies that are somehow surviving despite the pandemic and the recession. Sophia June reports in The Daily Beast on four — Seven Days, the Cleveland Scene, The Stranger of Seattle and The Austin Chronicle. According to June, Seven Days was able to reverse the cuts that it had made within six weeks, suggesting that the newspaper apocalypse that seemed to be upon us in the early days of the shutdown didn’t quite come to pass. Here’s a key excerpt:
The paper had to stop hosting events and printing several of their guides, but they reached out to businesses like the Department of Health, a local hospital, and banks to find new advertisers. They pitched new guides, including a travel guide for the Vermont Department of Tourism, encouraging safe travel in the state. They were also able to keep revenue-generators like monthly parenting and real-estate inserts.
Also getting a mention is DigBoston, which has kept the alt-weekly scene alive here in the post-Phoenix era. The Dig stopped publishing its print edition last March but then started up again in June, as Poynter’s Kristen Hare reported at the time. It’s notable that all of the papers I’ve mentioned are for-profit entities, although the Dig shares content with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, a sister organization.
Does this mean that happy days are here again? Of course not. But these stories are yet another sign that independent newspapers unburdened by corporate and hedge-fund ownership can find a way to survive. Once the pandemic is behind us, maybe they’ll even thrive.
A number of people have contacted me to make sure I knew that John Burgess had died at the age of 74. Unfortunately, I didn’t know him. He left The Boston Phoenix, where he was managing editor, in 1989, and I started there in 1991. John spent the rest of his career as a copy editor at The Boston Globe where he was, by all accounts, one of the most liked and respected people in the newsroom.
According to his obituary, “Described by friends and family as brilliant, funny, kind and gentle — a literal ‘gentleman’ — John made all our lives, and our writing, better.” May all of us live our lives in such a way that we earn such a warm remembrance.
We lost a great American on Saturday. Sen. John McCain was a complicated man, but his integrity, courage, and fundamental decency were beyond reproach. In February 2000, I covered the South Carolina showdown between McCain and George W. Bush for The Boston Phoenix. Bush had just lost the New Hampshire primary to McCain and was hanging on for dear life. Bush defeated McCain in South Carolina and went on to win the presidency. I think I had more fun reporting this story than just about any other I can remember. Today, courtesy of the Northeastern University Archives, WGBH News republishes my story in full.
GREENVILLE, S.C. — The Straight Talk Express — a bus that’s expanded into a three-vehicle caravan since John McCain’s unexpectedly large victory in New Hampshire — has just pulled up in front of City Hall. A crowd of people has gathered, waiting expectantly for the candidate. Among them is Geno Church, a city employee who’s holding his 5-year-old daughter, MacKenzie, so she can get a closer look. She points to a huge sign on one of the buses that says “McCain” and asks, “Daddy, why does that sign say ‘Media’?”
Out of the mouths of babes and all that.
The McCain campaign is many things. An insurgent effort by an underfunded challenger against an establishment candidate — George W. Bush — who’s been anointed with more than $65 million in contributions. A crusade to clean up a hopelessly corrupt political system. A book tour to promote “Faith of My Fathers,” which, McCain jokingly but carefully notes at every stop, was published by Random House and is available from Amazon.com for $24.95. (It’s working: “Faith of My Fathers” was Amazon’s 36th hottest-selling book as of Tuesday.)
Above all else, though, the McCain campaign is a media moment. The press has fallen hard for McCain, harder than it fell for Bill Clinton in 1992, harder than it fell for Gary Hart in 1984 or George McGovern in 1972. Aboard the Straight Talk Express, it’s clear that the reporters believe they’re in the midst of something historic — something akin, perhaps, to the 1960 campaign of John F. Kennedy, the last time a war hero with a sense of humor and a proclivity for mixing it up with the press ran for president.
“It’s kind of a running dialogue that goes on on the McCain bus. The extraordinary thing about the McCain campaign is that everything is on the record. I’ve never seen anything like it,” says veteran Boston Globe reporter Curtis Wilkie. Wilkie — one of the characters who pops up in Timothy Crouse’s classic on the 1972 campaign, “The Boys on the Bus” — calls McCain’s dealings with the media something of a “throwback” to the days when “you didn’t have nearly as many press people running around, and in general the candidates were more accessible.” And for the press, there is no higher value than accessibility.
It’s not that the press is consciously in the tank for McCain, or that he escapes all critical scrutiny. The beat reporters say they’re careful not to let their easy access to the candidate twist their coverage. But the cumulative effect of McCain’s blunt candor, his nonstop, on-the-record chatter, his sense of brio and his insouciance, has been to create an aura of goodwill in which the candidate — unlike perhaps any other national politician — automatically receives the benefit of the doubt.
Collectively — with, of course, certain exceptions (Time magazine broke from the pack last week with excellent pieces on McCain’s ultraconservative ideology and lack of a substantive agenda beyond campaign-finance reform) — the media have concluded that McCain is capable of transcending his unremarkable career in the Senate, his run-of-the-mill influence-peddling, and his doctrinaire conservatism to reform a political system that has grown hopelessly corrupt and out of touch with average Americans. Are they right? Continue reading “Remembering John McCain: Barreling through S.C. on the Straight Talk Express”→
With the bankrupt corporate chain iHeartMedia now in the process of dismantling WBZ Radio (AM 1030), the city’s only commercial news station, I thought I would repost a story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix in 1997 — a look at the state of radio in Boston one year after passage of the disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1997.
Sound and Fury
Corporate consolidation has destroyed commercial radio. Here’s how it happened — and how to make it better.
The Boston Phoenix
November 13, 1997
It’s cold in Rick Anderson’s office, on the third floor of a red-brick building just outside Roxbury’s Dudley Square. Not see-your-breath, rub-your-hands cold, but cold enough for Anderson to have topped off his casual attire with a heavy flannel shirt. Cold enough for a visitor to keep his sports coat on.
Anderson, 41, is the program director of WILD Radio (AM 1090), where he has worked off and on since 1984. A trim man of medium height, with a shaved head, close-cropped mustache, and goatee, Anderson speaks in the smooth, confident tones of an experienced radio announcer. In fact, in addition to his management duties, Anderson works the afternoon drive time shift, playing new hits by black artists such as SFTP (“My Love Is the Shhh”) and Bobby Brown (“Feelin Inside”).
Anderson boasts that these are good times for WILD. Since adopting a format of what he calls “straight urban music” last year, the station’s ratings have ticked up. And though the station is hardly a threat to ratings monster WJMN (94.5 FM), a/k/a JAM’N, whose music formula occupies the same niche, Anderson insists that WILD has more credibility in the black community.
“It’s all good music,” he says. “It’s just that at one end it’s done by black people, at the other end it’s done by white people. We really know the music. They do a lot of — research.” Obviously pleased with the comparison, he leans back in his chair and smiles.
But there’s another, even more crucial difference between WILD and WJMN. At a time when radio has come to be dominated by megacorporations that gobble up multiple stations in a given market, WILD is one of the last of the independents.
On February 8, 1996, a furious, multimillion-dollar lobbying effort by corporate interests paid off big time, when Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law. Though most of the focus was on the deregulation of the telephone, cable, and television industries, the law also contained a sweet plum for the radio industry — or, rather, for the industry’s wealthiest players. Ownership restrictions in a given market were loosened from four stations to as many as eight. National restrictions, formerly set at 40 stations, were eliminated altogether.
Not surprisingly, this green light set off a feeding frenzy. More than 4000 of the nation’s 10,000 or so commercial radio stations have changed hands since the bill’s passage. The combined price tag: a whopping $25 billion, or slightly more than this year’s federal budget deficit.
The consolidation of Boston’s stations came mainly in two big gulps. The first took place in June 1996, when Westinghouse Electric Company, owner of CBS Radio, purchased Infinity Broadcasting for $3.9 billion, creating a nationwide chain of 82 stations. The second came this past September, when Westinghouse bought out American Radio Systems for $2.6 billion. After the merger is complete, Westinghouse will be the nation’s radio powerhouse. Chancellor Media will have more stations, but Westinghouse/CBS will have more listeners at any given moment. (See “Monopoly Pieces” for an explanation of how listenership is measured.)
As a result, Westinghouse/Infinity and ARS control 10 Boston stations, accounting for some 70 percent of the radio advertising market. Under US Department of Justice antitrust guidelines, Westinghouse will have to sell or trade stations to get that figure down to 40 percent before the sale wins final approval, probably in early 1998. That will still make Westinghouse the big bully on the block. And that bully has the potential to flex its muscle more in the years to come because once it scales back to 40 percent, there is no cap on future ad-sales growth. Continue reading “How we got here: A look back at how commercial radio in Boston was destroyed”→
On Thursday came the sad news that the comedian and writer Barry Crimmins, who virtually invented Boston’s comedy scene, had died at the age of 64. Barry was a man of several careers. Among other things, he was an activist against child sexual abuse and a towering figure at The Boston Phoenix, which is how I got to know him.
Barry was one of the most thoroughly decent human beings I have ever met. We were all hoping that Bobcat Goldthwait’s 2015 documentary “Call Me Lucky” would relaunch his career. Unfortunately, it never really happened. Barry announced in January that he had terminal cancer. His wife, Helen Crimmins, is also ill.
Jim Sullivan writes about Barry’s legacy for The Artery at WBUR.org. At the time of its release I wrote about “Call Me Lucky” for WGBH News. Barry will be hugely missed. Wherever he is today, I hope he is given what he publicly asked for so many times: excommunication from the Catholic Church, whose leadership he detested for its role in covering up the crimes of pedophile priests.
Hey, hey whaddya say, excommunicate me today! @Pontifex
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.