Mike Barnicle is up to his old tricks

In the annals of modern political commentary, few phrases have been associated with one writer the way the ironic “it’s not about race because it’s never about race” is associated with Worcester’s own Charles Pierce, who writes a political blog for Esquire. For an example, see Pierce’s post of August 27, 2014, headlined: “It Is Never About Race: A Continuing Series.”

And by all means, trying Googling it so you can see all the references to Pierce.

Then there is former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle. On February 22, 2015 (sorry, but I only found out about this a few days ago), Barnicle wrote a piece for the Daily Beast ripping Rudy Giuliani for making veiled racial remarks about President Obama. So far, so good. But then there was this:

Let’s pause right here in this off-the-cliff assault by the former mayor to remind everyone of something Obama’s loudest critics always insist is the case: This is not about race because it’s never about race when it comes to nut-boys attacking the President of the United States. Sure!

Fairly innocuous as these things go? Well, yes. But given that Barnicle has a history of helping himself to other people’s words and phrases, I thought it was worth pointing out.

I emailed the Beast‘s editorial and public-relations departments late last week asking for a comment from an editor, Barnicle, or both. Crickets are chirping (a phrase that did not originate with me, I hasten to add).

And a hat tip to Dave Weigel of the Washington Post, who not only nailed Barnicle back when it happened but worked in a sly reference to Mike Royko while he was at it. Royko memorably accused Barnicle of pilfering his work back in the day.

Correction: The original version of this post misstated the date of Barnicle’s Daily Beast column.

The Worcester Sun charts a path from digital to paid print

Worcester Sun co-founders Fred Hurlbrink Jr., left, and Mark Henderson.
Worcester Sun co-founders Fred Hurlbrink Jr., left, and Mark Henderson.

Previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Mark Henderson is certainly not the first person to launch a hyperlocal website in the shadow of the daily newspaper that used to employ him. Nevertheless, his ideas about how to build the site into a sustainable business are unorthodox enough to merit attention.

Henderson, a former executive with the 150-year-old Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, Mass., unveiled the Worcester Sun in August. From the start, the Sun’s content has been protected behind a hard paywall of $2 a week. There are no discounts; if you want to subscribe for a year, it will cost you $104.

Once the Sun has attracted a critical mass of paid digital subscribers (Henderson won’t reveal the magic number except to say that it’s well short of 1,000), he’ll add a Sunday paper for $1 a week, perhaps as soon as next spring. Print matters, Henderson says, because that’s still where most of the advertising is.

“If you’re going to start something new, monetizing digital is tough,” says Henderson. “And you can’t look at print as a medium without understanding that there is a ton of money still to be made there. Especially in Sunday print. We could use Sunday print to boost us into the stratosphere, to get us into a stable orbit where we can launch other things.”

Bootstrapping paid digital to break into paid print? Matt DeRienzo, interim executive director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, says he’s skeptical but intrigued. “Sunday print is going against the grain. There’s a lot of reasons the cards are stacked against them,” says DeRienzo, the former editor of Digital First Media’s Connecticut publications, which include the New Haven Register. But he adds: “The best ideas are going to come from people who live in and care about their community and who are closest to the problem. Who’s to say it’s not going to work?”

With a population of 183,000 — the second-largest city in New England after Boston — and a median household income of about $46,000, more than $20,000 below the state average, Worcester is a city facing economic challenges. It’s precisely the sort of community that could benefit most from independent media projects such as the Sun, says Catherine Tumber, a scholar with the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University.

“No one else is coming to their rescue,” says Tumber, the author of the 2011 book “Small, Gritty and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World.” “They have to rely on their own resources and civic ecosystems in order to reconstruct their cities and maintain quality of life there.”

Last week, I met Henderson and his business partner (and cousin) Fred Hurlbrink Jr. in a brightly lit coworking space on the first floor of the Innovation Center of Worcester — formerly the Franklin Street headquarters of the Telegram & Gazette, the daily newspaper where Henderson worked for nearly 25 years. Across the street is City Hall and the Worcester Common. On the other side of the common looms the mid-sized tower that is the current home of the T&G.

Henderson, 49, rose from the paper’s sports department to deputy managing editor for technology and, starting in 2009, online director. He left on June 2, 2014, the day that John Henry, who had purchased The Boston Globe and the T&G from the New York Times Company, sold the T&G to Halifax Media Group of Daytona Beach, Florida, after previously saying he intended to sell to a local group. Halifax cut about 20 journalistsfrom the full-time newsroom staff of about 80. Further cuts came a few months later when Halifax turned around and sold the paper to New Media Investment Group, an affiliate of GateHouse Media, based in the suburbs of Rochester, New York.

Hurlbrink, 38, had two stints with GateHouse — first as a copy editor at The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham and later at the Design House, run out of the Framingham plant, which handled design and some copyediting tasks for multiple GateHouse papers. In August 2014, GateHouse announced that the operation would be closed and moved to Austin, Texas.

Even with a shrunken Telegram & Gazette, Henderson and Hurlbrink find themselves in the midst of a highly competitive media environment. In addition to the T&G, Worcester is covered by MassLive.com, part of Advance Digital; GoLocalWorcester, which has sister sites in Providence, Rhode Island, and Portland, Oregon; and Worcester Magazine, whose parent company, Holden Landmark Corporation, is controlled by GateHouse Media chief executive Kirk Davis but is not part of GateHouse.

In the face of such competition, Henderson and Hurlbrink say their plan is to steer clear of breaking news and offer depth and analysis instead. “We’re never going to cover breaking news,” Henderson says. “Will we cover the opiate epidemic rather than three people who OD’d in the last 24 hours? Yeah, we’ll take a look at that. But we’ll devote the resources to do it and give people an insight that they didn’t have before.”

The Sun’s content so far reflects that philosophy, starting with the August 9 debut, which featured an essay on the city’s bygone newspaper scene by Worcester native Charles P. Pierce, the high-profile journalist and author who these days spends most of his time blogging about politics for Esquire. The Sun has also published stories on the privacy concerns posed by surveillance cameras, the city’s sagging downtown business district, and a mother’s quest to find the educational resources she needs to help her daughter with ADHD. The site also offers such quotidian fare as profiles of local businesses, editorials and, yes, obituaries.

“I think there’s a niche,” says Timothy McGourthy, executive director of the Worcester Regional Research Bureau. “I think it provides kind of a thoughtful human-interest approach to Worcester. It’s a generally positive approach to the city. I think the challenge is going to be getting the word out in the marketplace.”

The Sun’s paywall — as well as that of the T&G — is based on technology provided by Clickshare, whose website touts the software as a “flexible system” that allows for different types of paid access, billing and payment processing, and various options for e-commerce. Bill Densmore, who founded Clickshare in the mid-1990s, believes that print and digital serve two different types of audiences — and that Henderson and Hurlbrink are smart to try to serve both.

“A lean-back experience once a week makes a lot of sense to me,” says Densmore, a research fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. “It’s an experiment, really, and an important one, both for the existing industry and for people starting on the digital side and wondering where that leads. I think the marriage of print and digital makes a lot of sense, particularly if you’re not trying to put out a daily paper, which increasingly seems anachronistic to me and to people in the digital world.”

Starting and maintaining a community news site is a hard way to make a living, but the allure is undeniable. LION counts about 130 member sites, and of course there many more that are not LION members. New ones pop up regularly. Just this week, The Boston Globe reported on a project called The Spark, cofounded by a former photographer for the GateHouse-owned Enterprise of Brockton.

It’s the same allure that has kept Henderson and Hurlbrink going despite setbacks — including a $150,000 Kickstarter campaign that fell well short of the mark. So far, they say, they’ve invested $200,000 in money and time. Soon they hope to unveil the first in a line of ebooks. And they’ve got plans to launch online verticals in areas such as education and local sports. “I think there are places we can go where we can be effective,” says Hurlbrink.

If all goes according to plan, they foresee a staff of 20 full- and part-time journalists. The key, adds Henderson, is to fill a niche — and not worry about what the competition is doing.

“We’ve never said we’re here to take the T&G out,” says Henderson. “Other people have. We don’t agree with that. Our stated goal is to serve our audience, the city of Worcester, the best we can. And if we have an opportunity to grow our audience, all the better.”

Remembering the nine victims of the Charleston shootings

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Look at this image of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church‘s home page. Nothing has changed since the horrifying murders of nine people Wednesday evening. The site also includes this quote from Sister Jean German Ortiz, who, I assume, is or was a member of the church: “Jesus died a passionate death for us,  so our love for Him should be as passionate.”

They died passionately for our sins — we, the inheritors and conservators of a Confederate-flag-waving, gun-drenched culture that has only partly come to terms with our legacy of slavery and racism. The Washington Post has sketches of each of the nineSharonda Coleman-Singleton, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons and Myra Thompson. Sadly, with the possible exception of Rev. Pinckney, we’ll have an easier time remembering the name of the shooter, Dylann Storm Roof. There’s only one of him, and in any case evil holds our attention more easily than good.

I’m not sure why this terrible crime would spark any disagreements other than the inevitable disagreement over guns. But for some reason people are debating whether this is a “hate crime” or an act of “terrorism.” It strikes me that it’s obviously both — a home-grown act of terror committed by someone filled with hate.

But enough bloviating. Here is a short list of articles I’ve read that I hope will broaden our understanding.

I begin with our finest essayist, Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, who has written an eloquent demand that South Carolina remove the Confederate flag immediately. He writes:

This moral truth [a reference to a speech by a Confederate politician] — “that the negro is not equal to the white man” — is exactly what animated Dylann Roof. More than any individual actor, in recent history, Roof honored his flag in exactly the manner it always demanded — with human sacrifice.

Too bad Gov. Charlie Baker’s initial reaction to a question about the Stars and Bars was so clueless. Dan Wasserman of The Boston Globe does a whole lot better.

The New York Times publishes a piece by Douglas R. Egerton, the biographer of Emanuel AME founder Denmark Vesey, on the history of the church — a history marred by numerous racist attacks, the most recent coming in 1963. Here’s Egerton:

For 198 years, angry whites have attacked Emanuel A.M.E. and its congregation, and when its leaders have fused faith with political activism, white vigilantes have used terror to silence its ministers and mute its message of progress and hope.

Egerton also links to a 2014 Times article on the unveiling of a statue of Vesey, who, along with 34 others, was executed following a failed slave rebellion. Incredibly, there were those who opposed the statue on the grounds that Vesey was a “terrorist.” Think about that if you hear anyone deny that Roof carried out an act of terrorism.

I’ll close with my friend Charlie Pierce, who posted a commentary at Esquire on Thursday that demonstrated tough, clear-eyed thinking at a moment when the rest of us were still trying to figure out what had just happened. Pierce writes:

What happened in a Charleston church on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is “unspeakable.” We should speak of it often. We should speak of it loudly. We should speak of it as terrorism, which is what it was. We should speak of it as racial violence, which is what it was.

Please keep the nine victims and their families in your thoughts today.

Some thoughts about the meltdown of The New Republic

I don’t have much to offer on the meltdown of The New Republic except for a few inchoate thoughts. Many people have written many things, but it seems to me that the one essential read is Lloyd Grove’s piece in The Daily Beast. Now then:

1. Despite owner Chris Hughes’ excruciatingly awful behavior last week, it still isn’t clear to me why everyone resigned. When then-owner Marty Peretz fired editor Michael Kelly in 1997, mass resignations were threatened, but only one writer — media columnist William Powers — actually walked out the door. Kelly was an enormously popular, charismatic figure, but maybe the lack of solidarity was in recognition of how far he had dragged the supposedly liberal magazine to the right. Still, does no one want to see if there might be some positive aspects to Hughes’ plan?

2. And yet — if Hughes wants a digital media startup, why didn’t he just do it instead of buying TNR and turning it into something else? That makes no sense. And yet again — if Hughes is looking for the kind of print/online/events strategy that has transformed The Atlantic, as media-business analyst Ken Doctor argues, how could that possibly be a bad thing? I’d be the first to admit that I don’t like The Atlantic nearly as much as I did when it was a staid, Boston-based monthly. But it has managed to combine success, influence and seriousness, and that’s nothing to be scoffed at.

3. During Peretz’s long ownership, TNR was derided not just for its lack of diversity but for its hostility to any steps aimed at ensuring racial justice. I wrote for TNR twice. The first time, in 1998, was about the departure of Boston Globe columnists Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle for fabricating, and Barnicle for plagiarizing as well. When I received the edited version of my piece, I saw that someone had inserted some harsh anti-affirmative action language. (The idea was that both Smith, an African-American, and Barnicle, an Irish-American, had been beneficiaries of some sort of affirmative-action mindset.) I was appalled, and fortunately was able to get the language removed before publication. But it showed what kind of thinking prevailed at TNR.

4. Among the former TNR editors lashing out at Hughes is Andrew Sullivan, who, among other things, once gave over the cover of the magazine to the authors of “The Bell Curve,” a racist tome that argued that black people just aren’t as intelligent as whites. Sullivan also published an infamous, falsehood-filled article by Betsy McCaughey that trashed the Clinton health plan and may have contributed to its defeat. Sullivan did far more harm to TNR than Hughes, but now he’s seen as a defender of tradition. (For more on the sins of TNR during the Peretz era, see Charlie Pierce.)

5. Probably the worst thing you can say about Hughes is that he decided to blow up The New Republic just as it was rediscovering its footing as a liberal journal. Editor Franklin Foer, by all accounts, was doing a fine job before Hughes fired him. But what is the role of a magazine like TNR in the digital age? The policy pieces in which it specialized are everywhere. Hughes could have kept it going as a small, money-losing journal, of course. But there was a time when TNR was an influential small, money-losing journal. Those days are long gone, as Ezra Klein notes at Vox. You can’t blame Hughes for wanting to try something different. If his behavior had been less reprehensible, maybe he could have brought his talented staff and contributors along for the ride.

Friends of Media Nation reflect on the tragedy

I’ve seen a lot of worthwhile, heartfelt commentary written by friends and colleagues in the last day and a half. I’ve retweeted some, “liked” others, but I thought I should try to pull some of them together here. The following is a highly idiosyncratic list; the only unifying principle is that I am friendly with the writers. I’m probably forgetting a few, but I can always post more later. Click on the names to read their essays in full.

Amy Derjue: “As I’m about to get on the train or back in the car after visiting my Mom, she says she puts me in a bubble when I leave. In the bubble, nothing bad can happen to me when I’m out of her sight. It’s how she can deal with me riding the subway to work, living in a city, driving a car. We all put ourselves and our loved ones in these bubbles every day. Boston’s bubble doesn’t feel very strong right now. But we’ll be OK. We’ll keep going about our business and doing what we love because a life lived in all-encompassing fear isn’t life.”

Taylor Dobbs: “The bombs sounded like fireworks. The screams sounded like the cheers that had poured through my open window for hours. It wasn’t until I saw ‘explosion at the finish line’ on Twitter that I took out my camera bag, snapped on my zoom lens and ran out the door, shoes untied and sockless.”

Azita Ghahramani: “Finally, safely at home, I made the mistake of turning on the news to hear updates on what had happened. When someone reported that the first casualty was an 8-year-old-boy, I heard my son gasp. A child, not much younger than him, hadn’t been spared the nightmare my son thought he had narrowly escaped. That gasp is the other moment I’ll never forget.”

William Bradford: “I have lived in Boston for almost four years now and this was the first time I had decided to be a spectator of the marathon, and to partake in the revelry of Patriots Day. In truth, I did not really want to go downtown. When you stand butt-high to the average citizen, crowds tend to be an annoyance. But there were two of my people running in the race and I wanted to greet them at the finish line. It was to be a monumental day: the first time in race history that two people with dwarfism would not only be qualified to run the race, but also finish it. Or so I hoped. I am the Senior Vice President of Little People of America, the nation’s largest support and advocacy group for people with dwarfism, and it was a proud moment for our organization. I felt a duty to be there in solidarity. As it turned out, it was the solidarity of strangers, Good Samaritans, that bore me through a time of crisis.”

Josh Stearns: “I have no doubt that my sons will have to confront violence in our media and our world, but I see no benefit to introducing it at such a young age. Children under the age of six witness media coverage of disasters as live events, happening before their eyes (ears) and so to children, the ongoing repeated coverage feels as though the disaster is in fact happening over and over again. At a time when the news stories can shift from budget debates and bombings, the news is full of emotional landmines.”

Charles P. Pierce: “Ultimately, many of the lost and the confused and the separated found themselves and their loved ones at the Boylston Street end of the Public Garden. There was a general milling about and, for a moment, it almost seemed as though the spirit of the day had been recaptured, until you realized that a lot of this joy was about finding out your wife or your son wasn’t maimed, and until you saw the people sitting alone, their backs against the trees, staring up through the branches as if they were hanging prayers on every one of them.”

Lloyd Schwartz (added Wednesday): “More people have lost their lives at stampedes at other sporting events in other parts of the world. But I’m heartbroken about the eight-year-old boy killed returning to the stands after running into the street to greet his father who was crossing the finish line. For the new amputees, some of them runners. For the dancer who sustained critical leg injuries. For Boston. It’s heartbreaking.”

Steve Krause (added Wednesday): “I’ve heard a lot in the past two days about how tough Bostonians are … and how resilient. I don’t know if we’re any tougher, or any more resilient, than anyone else whose city has been torn apart by a terror attack. The dichotomy of all this is that the most depraved acts we can think of often result, in their aftermath, in some of the most astounding examples of human kindness and nobility of spirit. I’d like to bottle it up if I could and let some of it out down the road when the shock wears off and people return to acting the way they normally do.”

Michael Jonas (added Wednesday): “Yesterday, as was true a dozen years ago, the security drill struck me as a fairly desperate effort to bring at least a thin veneer of order and security to a world with risks we simply are not able to eliminate. But once the office buildings are secured, what about the shopping malls? Downtown Crossing at midday? My Red Line ride home? Or anyplace, for that matter, where a dozen people might congregate close together, an inviting ‘soft target’ for someone bent on the mayhem that transformed the scene at the Boston Marathon finish line in an instant from a celebration of human perseverance to a sidewalk killing field.”

Pierce leaves Globe to blog on politics for Esquire

Anyone who follows Charlie Pierce on Facebook knows the guy was born to be a political blogger. Few combine snark, outrage and an eye for interesting links better than he.

Well, now Jim Romenesko reports that Pierce is leaving the Boston Globe Magazine to become the lead writer for Esquire magazine’s “Politics Blog.” (Pierce was already a contributing editor for Esquire.) Editor-in-chief David Granger says:

Charlie is going to make Esquire.com’s “The Politics Blog” one of the very few political blogs one has to read every day, all day. He is one of the great American voices, and we’re confident that he will lead a national conversation during what should be the most entertaining political season of our lifetimes.

The timing is a bit awkward for the Globe. While you still can, check out a video of Pierce talking about his favorite writers, which he made as part of a Globe ad campaign.

In 2009 I wrote about Pierce’s book “Idiot America” for the Guardian. Pierce is a longtime friend of Media Nation, and I wish him the best.

Update: Turns out there was more to Pierce’s departure from the Globe. Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth Magazine reports that Pierce was disciplined  for writing an “intemperate and intolerant” blog post about Tea Party Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell for Esquire last year. Among other things, he called her a “sideshow freak” and a “crackpot,” observations that might seem unremarkable to anyone familiar with Pierce’s writing style, O’Donnell’s bona fides or both.

Pierce currently has a union grievance pending against management. Pierce told Sullivan, “You could probably safely say ‘yes’” as to whether the dispute was among the factors that persuaded him to leave.

It would be easy to rip Globe managers for letting one of their most original writers walk over such a minor matter. But I understand why a paper like the Globe prohibits its writers from going postal for other publications, much as that policy might seem archaic in the Internet era. So I’ll leave it at this: What Pierce wrote for Esquire was precisely what the Globe could have anticipated he would write — it was standard-issue Pierce, neither more nor less caustic than his political writing in general. (Good Lord, have they read “Idiot America”?)

And the Globe is losing a lot more than it’s gaining.

Three for Monday

I’m up to my neck in other work, so three quick observations for a Monday morning:

1. The Boston Globe’s Spotlight series on the state’s patronage-riddled Probation Department should be the last nail in the coffin for state treasurer Tim Cahill’s independent gubernatorial campaign. The clueless Cahill doesn’t help matters today. While Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick and Republican challenger Charlie Baker squabble over how best to disinfect the agency, Cahill — a key player in the patronage game — criticizes Baker’s campaign for trying “to politicize issues for their own benefit without having a full understanding of the matters at hand.”

2. The New York Times’ Brian Stelter reports that news organizations are cutting back on covering presidential trips, citing an “exorbitant” cost in 2009 of $18 million. Frankly, I don’t think the shrinkage is a big deal. How many reporters need to follow the president around the world? But given that Katie Couric’s $15 million salary comes to almost the entire annual cost, it’s hard to take this lament seriously.

3. Make sure you read Charles Pierce’s excellent profile of Terry Francona, the greatest baseball manager in the known universe. It appeared Sunday in the Boston Globe Magazine.

Natural-born citizens of Idiot America

In my latest for the Guardian, I consider how the media ought to deal with the right-wing Birther movement through the lens of my friend Charles Pierce’s excellent new book — “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free.”

Second-best Celtics team ever? (II)

Media Nation reader J.V. notes that Bob Ryan wasn’t exactly predicting glory last August, when it looked to him like the Celtics were going to throw three superstars and a bunch of not-very-warm bodies out there every night. Ryan wrote:

Unless it really is going to be a three-on-three NBA, the Celtics will be forced to place two additional players on the floor, and not just occasionally, but for every one of the 48 minutes.

That concerns me. That concerns me because what I am about to say is nonnegotiable: What’s left on the Celtics’ roster is by far the worst collection of proven talent in the NBA.

Be sure to watch the video, too, in which Charlie Pierce agrees with Ryan. Hey, it wasn’t that dumb when they said it. I guess.