In our latest ‘What Works’ podcast, Damon Kiesow talks about human-centered design

Damon Kiesow

Our latest “What Works” podcast features Damon Kiesow, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where he holds the Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing. But Ellen Clegg and I first met him about 10 years ago when he was at The Boston Globe, developing mobile products for Boston.com and BostonGlobe.com.

At the time, the new Globe.com site had been launched with a paywall, and featured the Globe’s journalism. Although print revenue is still significant, the paywall strategy seems to be paying off now in terms of digital subscriptions. Kiesow and others were working on emerging technologies in mobile and social media. Kiesow focused on human-centered design: how readers interact with a print newspaper versus a digital side. Does some 150 years of experience reading print make a difference? Why is doom scrolling on digital platforms so exhausting? Tune in and find out.

Plus Ellen takes a quick look at a powerful newspaper collaboration in South Carolina that is rooting out scandal after scandal, and I offer an update on the vibrant digital archive of the late, great Boston Phoenix, housed at Northeastern University and now freely available online.

You can listen here or on your favorite podcast app.

After a long delay, most of The Boston Phoenix print archives are now online

The Boston Phoenix’s archives have taken a giant step closer to becoming accessible and usable.

A few weeks ago I learned from Giordana Mecagni, the head of special collections and university archivist at Northeastern, that a deal had been struck with the Internet Archive to make print editions of the Phoenix available — and searchable — online. On Wednesday, it became official. Caralee Adams has the details at the Internet Archive’s blog.

I’m really thrilled that this has happened. I was on staff at the Phoenix from 1991 to 2005, most of that time as the media columnist, and I continued to write for the paper occasionally up until it closed in 2013. Two years later, the Phoenix’s founder and publisher, Stephen Mindich, donated the archives to Northeastern, a gift I helped arrange.

Unfortunately, Stephen died in 2018, and the hopes we all had of digitizing the collection stalled out. A couple of years ago there was talk of a grant proposal, but that didn’t go anywhere, either. So what happened? Adams explains:

As it turns out, the Internet Archive owned the master microfilm for the Phoenix and it put the full collection online in a separate collection: The Boston Phoenix 1973-2013. Initially, the back issues were only available for one patron to check out at a time through Controlled Digital Lending. Once Northeastern learned about the digitized collection, it extended rights to the Archive to allow the Phoenix to be downloaded without controls.

“All of a sudden it was free to the public. It was wonderful,” Mecagni told Adams. “We get tons and tons of research requests for various aspects of the Phoenix, so having it available online for free for people to download is a huge help for us.”

I’ve been playing with the new collection the last few weeks, and though it’s not perfect, it’s a big step forward. It encompasses papers starting in 1973, when Mindich, the publisher of a competing alt-weekly called Boston After Dark, acquired The Phoenix and renamed it The Boston Phoenix, up until the closing in March 2013.

There are some significant gaps; there appear to be no issues from 2011 or ’12, and just 33 from 2010, for instance. (I’ll bet there are ways of fixing that. I know that the Boston Public Library has the Phoenix in its microfilm collection, and perhaps it’s more complete than what the Internet Archive has.) And BAD, the pre-Mindich Phoenix and The Real Paper, founded by former staff members of The Phoenix following the 1973 acquisition, are all absent as well.

But this is a huge, huge step forward. As Carly Carioli, the last editor of the Phoenix, told Adams: “It’s a dream come true. The Phoenix was invaluable in its own time, and I think it will be invaluable for a new generation who are just discovering it now.”

Giordana Mecagni deserves huge thanks. From the beginning, she has understood the value of the Phoenix. This is a big step forward for her vision as well.

That link, once again, is right here. Enjoy!

GBH News’ just-announced political show conjures up ties with The Boston Phoenix

As an alumnus of “Beat the Press,” which was canceled over the summer, I’ve been curious about what GBH-TV (Channel 2) would do about filling the Friday 7 p.m. time slot.

The station ran a local politics show during the fall that was supposed to end on Election Day but was instead extended through the rest of the year. Now it looks like that show is being made permanent, with a new name — “Talking Politics.” The show will be focused on the suddenly hot Massachusetts gubernatorial race.

Although I don’t know whether it’s deliberate (I suspect it was), the name conjures up the connections between GBH News and the late, great Boston Phoenix. The host, Adam Reilly, used to be the Phoenix’s “Talking Politics” columnist. GBH News senior editor Peter Kadzis, who’ll be part of the new show, was the editor of the Phoenix for many years.

Other Phoenix alums associated with GBH News include former “Talking Politics” columnists Jon Keller and David Bernstein as well as civil-liberties columnist Harvey Silverglate. And, of course, yours truly. Might we consider renaming my GBH media column “Don’t Quote Me”?

The full press release follows.

BOSTON (December 2, 2021) – GBH News today announced the launch of Talking Politics, a new weekly show that will take a deep dive into local politics, with a special focus on the 2022 Massachusetts gubernatorial race. Hosted by GBH News politics reporter Adam Reilly, the panel-based series will feature conversations with local political newsmakers, influencers, analysts and activists. GBH News City Hall reporter Saraya Wintersmith, Statehouse Bureau reporter Mike Deehan and politics editor Peter Kadzis will also be key contributors. Talking Politics debuts on Friday, December 3 at 7:00 p.m. on GBH 2 and streaming on the GBH News YouTube Channel.

“Audiences throughout Massachusetts know that the issues being debated on Beacon Hill have the potential to directly impact their lives. And it’s not just the issues, but the individuals who are shaping these discussions,” said Pam Johnston, general manager of news at GBH. “With this week’s announcement from Governor Baker that he will not seek reelection, the race to lead Massachusetts is wide open. Talking Politics will bring audiences compelling conversations and deeply reported local journalism about political issues across the Commonwealth with the 2022 gubernatorial race at center stage.”

Talking Politics builds on the foundation created by Boston’s Race Into History, the pop-up television show integral to GBH News’ multi-platform initiative focused on the 2021 Boston Mayoral Race. In each week’s half-hour episode, Talking Politics will take a broader look at state and local politics and their impact on the issues that matter. The series will investigate a wide range of political developments across the Commonwealth including the unfolding gubernatorial race, the new leadership in place in key Massachusetts cities, and the administration of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.

The debut episode will look at Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to not seek reelection in 2022 after leading the Commonwealth for two terms. Host Adam Reilly and guests will also provide an update into the campaigns of the race’s declared candidates, Republican Geoff Diehl, and Democrats Danielle Allen, Ben Downing, and Sonia Chang-Díaz.

Audiences can stay up-to-date with local political coverage by subscribing to the GBH News politics newsletter. GBH News has been expanding its political coverage over the past year including a multi-platform journalism initiative focused on Boston’s mayoral race and regular appearances by elected officials on Boston Public Radio.

 

The Cambridge Chronicle lives. But the city still needs a lot more coverage.

News coverage in Cambridge — or the lack thereof — got a lot of attention recently when Joshua Benton wrote in Nieman Lab about the departure of Amy Saltzman as editor of the Cambridge Chronicle-Tab.

What drew national notice was Benton’s warning that maybe Saltzman wouldn’t be replaced and that Gannett would allow it to sink into the ranks of ghost newspapers. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, although Gannett has gone on a spree of shutting down print editions recently. Saltzman’s successor, Will Dowd, introduced himself this week. But Benton’s larger point still holds. Cambridge, a well-educated, affluent city of about 118,000, is covered by just one full-time paid journalist.

Saltzman edited the Chronicle for nine years, which is about 150 years in Corporate Chain Journalism Time. In her farewell column, she writes that she had more resources at her disposal back when she started — in addition to herself, there were one and a half reporting positions, an editorial assistant, a freelance budget, several photographers and an office in nearby Somerville. Four years later, she found herself alone. Yet she adds:

So as I leave my post, I have one plea: Support local journalism. Subscribe to the Chronicle. The paper’s survival as the oldest continuously run weekly newspaper in the country continues to be against all odds and should be lauded.

Well, now. Should Cantabrigians support the Chronicle? My answer would be yes if they’re getting value from it. But I don’t think anyone should feel obliged to support a paper that’s been hollowed out by Gannett and its predecessor company, GateHouse Media, especially when it could almost certainly be run profitably with a bigger staff and a more imaginative approach to the business of journalism. At this point, the closest thing the city has to a news source of record is the Cambridge Day, a mostly volunteer project. It would be nice to see some resources put into the Day, or perhaps into a nonprofit start-up.

Then again, news coverage in Cambridge has always been a puzzle. According to legend, at one time it was the largest city in the country without a daily newspaper, a fact that was usually attributed to its proximity to Boston. Yet neither the Globe nor the Herald ever gave more than cursory coverage to Cambridge. The alt-weeklies — The Boston Phoenix and The Real Paper — actually devoted quite a few resources to Cambridge coverage since that’s where a lot of their readers lived. I remember covering a few Cambridge political stories myself. But those papers are all gone.

When I was a senior in college, a friend of mine who lived in Cambridge and I made serious plans to launch a weekly after we graduated that would compete with the Chronicle, then owned by the Dole family. As we immersed ourselves in the details, though, we discovered that the Chronicle was actually selling its ads at prices well below those listed on its rate card. Realizing we’d be undercut, we got about the business of finding jobs, and that was that.

Later on, Russel Pergament launched the Cambridge Tab, a free paper that was part of a chain of Tab papers in the western suburbs. Pergament sold out to Community Newspaper Co. in 1996, when it was owned by Fidelity Capital. The Chronicle and the Tab were eventually merged.

Which brings us back to the present. Saltzman enjoyed a solid reputation, and I know that Dowd was respected for his work at Gannett’s North Shore papers. But one person can’t cover a city of nearly 120,000 people. It’s long past time for someone to step in and provide Cambridge with the news and information it needs.

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Yes, local news holds corporations to account. No, hedge funds won’t save them.

Photo (cc) 2008 by mbgrigby

Update II: And the paragraph has been restored. I’m told there was nothing nefarious about its disappearance.

Update: Oh, my. The nutty last paragraph that prompted this post has been deleted. Not a good look, Harvard.

***

In an otherwise unremarkable story from Harvard Business School about a study into the effects of local newspaper closures on corporate wrongdoing, I ran into this bizarro closing paragraph. The story quotes Professor Jonas Heese, a co-author of the study:

Saving local newspapers isn’t Heese’s specialty, but he points to a recent trend of hedge funds buying up distressed local media outlets as having the potential to stabilize the market and resurrect local news. And that makes him wonder: “Is this a reason to be hopeful?”

No, Professor Heese. It is not a reason to be hopeful. I suggest you stick to statistical analysis, which you seem to be pretty good at. Here’s the abstract, from the Journal of Financial Economics, titled “When the Local Newspaper Leaves Town: The Effects of Local Newspaper Closures on Corporate Misconduct”:

We examine whether the local press is an effective monitor of corporate misconduct. Specifically, we study the effects of local newspaper closures on violations by local facilities of publicly listed firms. After a local newspaper closure, local facilities increase violations by 1.1% and penalties by 15.2%, indicating that the closures reduce firm monitoring by the press. This effect is not driven by the underlying economic conditions, the underlying local fraud environment, or the underlying firm conditions. Taken together, our findings indicate that local newspapers are an important monitor of firms’ misconduct.

Reading this leads me to think about our work at The Daily Times Chronicle in Woburn, when we uncovered a massive toxic waste problem in the early 1980s that may have led to an outbreak of childhood leukemia and other illnesses. Charlie Ryan’s reporting was crucial to breaking the story wide open. In 1998, he recounted in The Boston Phoenix the sequence of events that led the world to understand that Woburn had an environmental and public health disaster on its hands:

Ryan’s most important story came in December 1979, on a development he thought he’d been beaten on. The state’s Department of Public Health was about to release the results of a study on Woburn’s leukemia rate, and Ryan arranged to interview DPH officials. That morning, the Boston Herald American published a front-page story reporting that the leukemia rate was within the normal range for a city of Woburn’s size.

“I was a little pissed,” Ryan remembers, “but I went in there anyway.” He sat down with a DPH statistician, who explained the results to him: essentially, the DPH had taken the number of leukemia cases and divided it by the total population of Woburn, based on the 1970 census. Ryan stopped him. 1970? The population of Woburn, Ryan knew, had fallen from 40,000 to around 36,000. Ryan asked a simple question: What would happen if the lower figure were used? The statistician recalculated the numbers — and, all of a sudden, the number of leukemia cases appeared to be “statistically significant,” the bland-sounding phrase used to describe what was obviously a very real problem.

“That story drastically changed everything,” says Ryan, who got out of journalism a few years ago and now helps run the computers for Essex County Newspapers. “To that point, everyone had considered Anne Anderson to be just a hysterical mom. I think without that story, the Centers for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the state never would have pushed that hard.”

Yes, local journalism is crucial in holding corporations to account, just as it is in keeping an eye on government and other large institutions. But no, hedge funds are not the solution. They’re the problem.

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What 9/11 hath wrought: A polarized country, a toxic media environment and a crisis of democracy

Department of Defense photo (cc) 2009 by Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison, U.S. Air Force

Previously published at GBH News.

Like all of us who are old enough, I have vivid memories of Sept. 11, 2001, just as our older brothers and sisters do about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and as our parents and grandparents did about the attack on Pearl Harbor. As others have said over and over again, it was a cool, clear morning, a preview of fall. I was working at The Boston Phoenix, where I covered media and politics. I stepped outside to get coffee and ran into an old acquaintance.

“Isn’t it terrible what happened at the World Trade Center?” she asked.

I didn’t know what she was talking about. I hurried inside. American Airlines Flight 11, which originated at Logan Airport in Boston, had crashed into the North Tower. There was talk of terrorism.

The Phoenix did not have what you would call a well-equipped newsroom. We had a TV that got a handful of channels but no cable. It was obvious what I would be writing about, so I raced to my car and hurried home to the North Shore. I turned on the radio and listened to coverage of the second tower’s collapse just as I was rounding the bend to Route 1. And then I sat down in front of the television set, watching for hour after hour and wondering how I would make sense of it all. Finally, sometime well after midnight, I started to write.

The piece I came up with was headlined “The End of Decadence.” In it, I expressed my hope that the media would finally return to a sense of purpose and seriousness after a decade of wallowing in celebrity culture, the O.J. Simpson trial and the theater-of-the-absurd impeachment of a president over his tawdry sex life.

In fact, the media did change after 9/11, but not for the better. The downward slide didn’t happen immediately. At first, the press diligently covered the aftermath of the attacks. The New York Times ran a wonderful series on the victims called “Portraits of Grief.” Journalists sought to make sense of how security measures aimed at preventing such attacks had so thoroughly broken down. The hunt for Osama bin Laden was covered with great enterprise and courage.

But it wasn’t long before President George W. Bush, a unifying figure in the days immediately after the attacks, began leading the nation in a divisive direction. His uplifting rhetoric about Muslims was offset by the government’s treatment of Muslims as a security risk. He went to war not just in Afghanistan but in Iraq, claiming — falsely, as it turned out — that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction.

And the media went along for the ride. Few questioned the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq, and few questioned why our incursion into Afghanistan had turned into a full-fledged war to transform a place we didn’t understand into a Western-style democracy. The Times in particular disgraced itself with its credulous, gung-ho coverage, but so did most other news outlets — especially cable news. My late friend Danny Schechter, the “News Dissector,” called it “militainment,” a construction he borrowed from James Poniewozik, then with Time magazine, now with the Times.

Over the next few years, the wars and the Bush White House both lost support, and the media began to fracture into what we see today — a reflection of the polarization that has made it nearly impossible for Democrats and Republicans even to speak to each other. On one side we have the mainstream media, hardly perfect but dedicated to reporting the truth, trusted by about 60% of the country. On the other side we have right-wing propaganda that has convinced 40% of the country that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, vaccines are dangerous and critical race theory is the most serious threat facing us.

Last month, the 20-year misadventure set off by 9/11 was finally brought to an end as the United States pulled its last remaining troops out of Afghanistan. It was a chaotic, ugly finish, and President Joe Biden has received quite a bit of criticism for it. But it does bring a close to the story that began on that clear September day in 2001.

The conclusion of the war in Afghanistan ends an era in journalism as well. Think back to where we were. Fox News was barely a blip on the radar. CNN consisted of straight news rather than opinionated talk shows. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no broadband. The internet-driven collapse of newspapers was still in the future. In other words, it was a time of consensus in the media and in the culture, at least compared with what was to come.

Over the weekend, Bush was praised for his forthright denunciation of the Trump-inspired domestic terrorists of 2021. “There is little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” he said. “But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard for human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit. And it is our continuing duty to confront them.”

That’s all well and good. But it was Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who started us down the road to Jan. 6 with their catastrophic wars, their trampling of civil liberties in this country and their use of torture abroad. And it was a combination of cowardice and gullibility on the part of too many in the media that helped bring us to the crisis of democracy we are dealing with today.

Looking back at 24 years of New England Muzzle Awards

In the spring of 1998, civil-liberties lawyer and First Amendment advocate Harvey Silverglate had an idea: Why not single out enemies of free speech in the pages of The Boston Phoenix? Harvey was a Phoenix contributor; I was the media columnist. We refined Harvey’s idea and, at his suggestion, named them the Muzzle Awards — borrowing the name from the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression (now defunct) and restricting them to the Boston, Worcester, Portland and Providence areas, where we had papers.

We decided on the Fourth of July for two reasons — first, to emphasize that the Muzzles were an expression of patriotism; second, so that the rest of the news staff could pretty much take the week off. The first annual Muzzle Awards were published on July 3, 1998. Among other winners, we singled out of the FCC for shutting down Radio Free Allston, a pirate station that served the community at a time when it was even harder to get a license for a low-power FM operation than it is today; the town of Plymouth, where police roughed up Native American protesters; and Walmart, for refusing to sell CDs that carried a parental warning label.

The Muzzles turned out to be a hit. David Brudnoy and, later, Dan Rea would have me on to talk about them on WBZ Radio (AM 1030) and — I’d like to think — we helped educate our readers about the importance of free expression.

I continued writing the Muzzles after leaving the Phoenix for Northeastern in 2005. At that point, I stopped singling out colleges and universities because I thought it would be a conflict of interest. Harvey began writing the Campus Muzzle Awards as a sidebar.

Then, in the spring of 2013, The Boston Phoenix closed abruptly, and we needed a new home for the Muzzles. Fortunately my friends at GBH News stepped up and have been hosting them ever since. Although The Worcester Phoenix was long gone at that point, the Muzzles continued to appear in the Providence and Portland papers until they, too, shut down. (The Portland Phoenix was revived a couple of years ago under new ownership and appears to be doing well.) And here’s a pretty astonishing fact: Peter Kadzis has been editing the Muzzles from the beginning, first at the Phoenix, now at GBH.

This year’s New England Muzzle Awards, published on July 1, are, like their predecessors, a reflection of the era. The Black Lives Matter protest movement that was revived after the police killings of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor figure in several of the awards — from Boston and Worcester police officers who brutalized peaceful demonstrators, to racial justice protesters in Burlington, Vermont, who stole and destroyed copies of a newspaper whose coverage they were unhappy with, to Sheriff Scott Kane of Hancock County, Maine, who banned a desperately needed drug-counseling service from his jail after the nonprofit posted a statement on its website in support of Black Lives Matter.

We have some well-known winners, too, including Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, Fox News talk-show host Tucker Carlson and former President Donald Trump. The town of Plymouth is back as well — this time for threatening punitive fines against a Trump supporter who’d put a sign critical of President Joe Biden on his lawn.

This is the 24th year of Muzzle Awards, so next year will be a landmark. Will they continue after their 25th anniversary? Right now I couldn’t tell you. I have put together an index of all 24 years in case you’re interested in what previous editions looked like. Link rot had claimed some of them, but I was able to overcome that thanks to the Internet Archive.

The animating spirit of the Muzzles was best expressed by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in 1929: “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

It’s been a long ride — and I’ve already got a candidate for the 2022 edition.

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A nostalgic look back at The Daily Item of Clinton

Tom Farragher’s column in today’s Boston Globe is a two-fer for me. Farragher writes about a recent effort to save the archives of The Item, formerly The Daily Item of Clinton. It turns out that one of those involved was Sean Kerrigan, a former Item reporter who’s now chair of the town’s select board. I worked with Sean at The Boston Phoenix, so it was nice to run across his name.

“It’s sad it takes something like this for people to understand how important a paper can be to a town,’’ Kerrigan told Farragher. “I’m a little biased obviously, but I can’t imagine a Clinton without the Item.”

Farragher also mentions the day in 1977 when the then-new president, Jimmy Carter, came to town for one of his first public forums. I wasn’t there. But I was a Northeastern co-op student down the road at The Woonsocket Call, and I remember that we were all buzzing about it in the newsroom.

The Item has been a weekly since 1996, and is now part of the Gannett chain, covering Clinton and six surrounding towns.

How alt-weeklies are surviving pandemic and recession

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.

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John Burgess, editing legend

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.