By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Brant Houston

Poynter reviews ‘What Works,’ pairing it with a book by old friend Brant Houston

Bill Mitchell has a kind review at Poynter Online of our book, “What Works in Community News,” pairing it with Brant Houston’s “Changing Models for Journalism.” He writes:

In practical terms, they are essential reading for anyone considering a news startup. For most people, journalist or not, launching a news venture without consulting these volumes invites the sort of outcome awaiting a novice cook attempting a French feast sans recipe.

Mitchell really gets what co-author Ellen Clegg and I are up to, noting that the book is the hub of a larger enterprise that includes a podcast, updates to our website and, last month, a conference on local news at Northeastern University that drew about 100 participants.

Also, a fun fact: Brant was my editor when I started working as a stringer at The Daily Times Chronicle in Woburn, Massachusetts, in 1979. Not long after I started, he told me that he was thinking about leaving, and that if I stuck around, I might be able to take his job. And so I did, working at the paper for 10 years before kicking around for a while and eventually landing at The Boston Phoenix.

Brant has also been a guest on our podcast.

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How Alden and Gannett inadvertently provided a boost to startup local news projects

The Buell Public Media Center in Denver, home of The Colorado Sun. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

Is there a silver lining hiding somewhere inside the rise of newspaper ownership by private equity? Brant Houston says yes. In a recent essay for the Gateway Journalism Review, Houston argues that what he calls the “Alden effect” has provided a significant boost to startup news projects as communities fight back against the destruction of their legacy newspapers. Alden is a reference to Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that owns two newspaper chains, MediaNews Group and Tribune Publishing, which between them control about 100 papers. Houston writes:

Alden Global is a call to arms for the creation or expansion of alternative, and often nonprofit newsrooms. A call to arms that should have been sounded years ago.

Call it the Alden effect.

Alden’s brazen and brutal harvesting of a disrupted and distressed news industry has made clear the long death spiral of newspapers and legacy media. And it has made clear how a new business model for journalism (usually a nonprofit model or a public benefit corporation) is needed and how independent digital newsrooms need to form deeper alliances.

Houston is the Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois. He talked about his new book, “Changing Models for Journalism,” in an appearance last June on the “What Works” podcast. And a personal note: He was my first editor at The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, Massachusetts, way back in 1979.

In his Gateway article, Houston traces such Alden-driven moves as a closer relationship between two existing nonprofits, Voice of San Diego and inewsource, in response to Alden’s acquisition of The San Diego Union-Tribune; the merger of WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times following Alden’s takeover of the Chicago Tribune; the founding of The Colorado Sun by 10 Denver Post journalists who’d had enough of Alden’s cuts; and the wealthy hotel magnate Stewart Bainum’s decision to found a high-profile nonprofit, The Baltimore Banner, after he lost out to Alden in a bid to purchase Tribune Publishing, whose holdings include The Baltimore Sun.

Ellen Clegg and I encountered the Alden effect over and over in our reporting for our book, “What Works in Community News.” We might call it the “Alden and Gannett effect,” since we also examined communities whose newspapers had been shredded by Gannett, our largest newspaper chain with about 200 papers. In addition to Denver, the projects we write about that have their origins in cuts by Alden and Gannett include:

  • Memphis, Tennessee, where nonprofits such as MLK50 and the Daily Memphian are filling some of the gaps created by cuts at Gannett’s Commercial Appeal.
  • The Bedford Citizen, a small nonprofit in the Boston suburbs launched about a dozen years ago as Gannett’s predecessor company, GateHouse Media, hacked away at the local weekly and ultimately closed it.
  • Mendocino County, California, where two refugees from Alden papers started a digital site called The Mendocino Voice.
  • Santa Cruz, California, where two former employees of Alden’s Santa Cruz Sentinel founded a nonprofit called Santa Cruz Local and where a larger for-profit, Lookout Santa Cruz, is operating as well.

Starting a news project is grindingly hard work, and Ellen and I came away with enormous respect for the news entrepreneurs we interviewed. It would be easier if legacy newspapers had remained in the hands of local interests. But, as Houston argues, the rise of Alden, Gannett and other chain owners has provided a jolt to efforts aimed at reviving community-based journalism.

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Brant Houston talks about his new book, which chronicles two decades of disruption

Brant Houston

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Brant Houston, who is hard to describe in one sentence: he’s an author, an educator, an investigative journalist, an expert in data-based reporting, and a co-founder of the Global Investigative Journalism Network and the Institute for Nonprofit News.

His new book, “Changing Models for Journalism,” chronicles the history of change, disruption and reinvention in our industry over the past two decades. These are themes we explore on this podcast, and in our own forthcoming book, “What Works in Community News.” Brant takes us back to the early days of digital and recounts the early optimism, and the early misconceptions, about the promise and the peril of the internet.

I’ve got a Quick Take on Pink Slime Journalism 3.0. We’ve seen an explosion of websites that might be called Pink Slime 2.0 as political operatives have sought to take advantage of the decline in real local news. That followed Pink Slime 1.0 — an outbreak about a decade ago of local news being produced by low-paid workers in distant locales, including the Philippines. Now, NewsGuard reports that dubious online content powered by artificial intelligence is spreading.

Ellen looks at the numbers in the 2023 impact report on local news by the INN. And there’s some good news: As the nonprofit journalism field expands, the resources to sustain these newsrooms are expanding, too.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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