Northeastern’s Myojung Chung and John Wihbey on attitudes about regulating social media

Myojung Chung

In the latest “What Works” podcast, Professors Myojung Chung and John Wihbey, colleagues from Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, share the findings from their new working paper, published by Northeastern’s Ethics Institute.

They and their colleagues examined attitudes about the regulation of social media in four countries: the U.K., Mexico, South Korea and the U.S. With Facebook (or Meta) under fire for its role in amplifying disinformation and hate speech, their research has implications for how the platforms might be regulated — and whether such regulations would be accepted by the public.

John Wihbey

In Quick Takes, Ellen Clegg and I kick around WBEZ Radio’s acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times, which will result in the newspaper’s becoming a nonprofit organization. We also discuss an announcement that a new nonprofit news organization will be launched in Houston with $20 million in seed money. Plus a tiny Easter egg from country artist Roy Edwin Williams.

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

With Chicago Public Media’s acquisition, the Sun-Times will soon go nonprofit

Photo (cc) 2011 by Seth Anderson

There’s been some confusion over Chicago Public Media’s acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times, a tabloid that is the city’s number-two daily newspaper. For example, The New York Times reported that “the ownership structure would be similar to that of The Philadelphia Inquirer, a big-city paper that the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism has run since 2016.”

Well, no. The Inquirer is a for-profit newspaper owned by a nonprofit organization. If the Inquirer itself were a nonprofit, it would be barred from endorsing political candidates. In fact, the paper continues to endorse candidates and published an “Endorsement Guide” as recently as last fall.

What’s happening in Chicago is different. The ownership of the Sun-Times will be converted to nonprofit with its own board, according to WBEZ, the broadcast arm of Chicago Public Media. The Sun-Times itself reports that the paper will “convert from for-profit to nonprofit status.” That would make it the second major daily paper to become a nonprofit, following The Salt Lake Tribune. Recently the executive editor of the Tribune, Lauren Gustus, reported that the paper is healthy and growing under nonprofit ownership.

As I mentioned, there is one disadvantage to nonprofit ownership: news organizations can’t endorse candidates or advocate for certain legislative actions without endangering their tax-exempt status. Of course, there are plenty observers who see that as a feature rather than a bug. For instance, David Boardman, chair of the Lenfest Institute, greeted the news that the Sun-Times will no longer be able to endorse with this:

But endorsements can be useful, especially in smaller races to which voters may be paying minimal attention. Besides, it’s an infringement on free speech. Such a rule didn’t even exist until Lyndon Johnson rammed it through the Senate in order to silence political opponents back home in Texas.

In any event, with Alden Global Capital disemboweling the long-dominant Chicago Tribune, the announcement that WBEZ and the Sun-Times will soon be covering the region with a combined newsroom is good news. And it shows that people and institutions are willing to step up when market failure undermines local news coverage.

In Chicago, public radio steps up to fill the gap created by hedge-fund ownership

It looks like Chicago’s number-two newspaper is about to get a huge boost. Given that the dominant daily, the Chicago Tribune, is being gutted by its new hedge-fund owner, the move can’t come soon enough.

According to media writer Rob Feder, the Chicago Sun-Times and public radio station WBEZ are seeking to merge their operations. The Sun-Times, a tabloid that bills itself as “The Hardest-Working Paper in America,” has long labored in the shadow of the Tribune. But with the Tribune now controlled by Alden Global Capital, the Sun-Times/WBEZ combination could quickly emerge as the news source of record in our third-largest city.

Sun-Times reporter Jon Seidel writes that the newspaper would become a subsidiary of Chicago Public Media. What’s unclear — and maybe those taking part in the talks haven’t figured it out themselves yet — is whether the Sun-Times would become a nonprofit or if it would remain a for-profit entity owned by a nonprofit. It matters for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that nonprofits are not allowed to endorse political candidates.

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I couldn’t immediately find any numbers on how big the two entities’ reporting staffs are. But it’s significant that there would reportedly be no job reductions if the two operations are combined. WBEZ is one of public radio’s powerhouses, and the Sun-Times has maintained decent paid circulation — nearly 107,000 on Sundays and almost 100,000 on weekdays, most of it print, according to numbers it filed with the Alliance for Audited Media a year and a half ago. (The Tribune clocked in at 527,000 on Sundays and 256,000 on weekdays.)

According to a news release quoted by the Sun-Times, the combined outlet “would invest in journalism through expanded capacity to better serve Chicago; expand and engage with diverse audiences throughout the region, and expand digital capabilities to deliver a compelling digital experience across platforms and reach audiences where they are.”

Public radio can play a vitally important role in keeping regional news coverage alive in markets where legacy newspapers are shrinking. In Denver, for instance, Colorado Public Radio, combined with Denverite, which it acquired several years ago, now has what is likely the largest newsroom in the state — about 65 staff members, according to executive editor Kevin Dale. The Denver Post, cut drastically under Alden ownership, employs about 60 journalists, and The Colorado Sun, a well-regarded digital start-up, has 22, according to editor Larry Ryckman.

In Boston, public radio stations WBUR and GBH have probably the most robust news operations in the region after The Boston Globe. Unlike the Tribune, the Globe is independently owned and growing. But if that were to change, the public radio stations would be well-positioned to fill in the gap.

The WBEZ/Sun-Times announcement is the best journalism news to come out of Chicago since Alden acquired the Tribune earlier this year. Let’s hope it becomes a model for what might take place elsewhere.

The reaper visits Cape Cod, New Bedford papers

In September I asked (here and here) whether Rupert Murdoch’s 33 Dow Jones community newspapers might face cuts once they were sold to Newcastle Investment Corp., which is affiliated with GateHouse Media. Over the weekend we got the answer: yes, indeed.

Screen Shot 2013-11-04 at 10.05.19 AMLocally, the Cape Cod Times and The Standard-Times of New Bedford, both of which enjoy excellent reputations, will have to make do with a lot less. Seven full-time and 10 part-time employees have been cut at the Cape Cod Media Group, which comprises the Times and several affiliated publications. Twelve newsroom jobs were eliminated, with 10 people being laid off.

Similarly, four full-timers and four part-timers were let go at the SouthCoast Media Group, which is dominated by The Standard-Times. The story does not say how many of those employees were on the news side.

Peter Meyer, the publisher of both papers, was quoted in The Standard-Times as saying:

It is important to know that new ownership is not at fault for today’s actions. Any buyer would have taken similar measures based on financial realities. This was a painful but necessary step to position the SouthCoast Media Group for future success.

Essentially the same statement ran in the Cape Cod paper. Yet Meyer also says the papers in both groups remain profitable, though not as profitable as they were in 2009. Which means that the new owners could have invested in growth — admittedly, a dicey proposition — rather than bet on continued shrinkage.

I could not find any announcement for the Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald, the third major local daily that Dow Jones sold in September. But Jim Romenesko reports that the Times Herald-Record of Middletown, N.Y., got rid of all four of its staff photographers and will now rely on freelancers — reminiscent of the move made by the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this year. Three newsroom managers were let go as well.

“I’m getting reports today of ‘bloodbaths’ at some of the former Dow Jones papers,” Romenesko wrote on Friday.

GateHouse, currently going through a structured bankruptcy, owns about 100 community newspapers in Massachusetts, most of them weeklies.

How did he get those shots?

Herald front 8-10-13Boston Herald photographer Mark Garfinkel tells you how at his blog, Picture Boston. When the beer truck lurched over the guard rail on I-93 Friday, Garfinkel was camped out at the federal courthouse, waiting to see if the jury would reach a verdict in the James “Whitey” Bulger trial.

He reports that he drove to the scene through heavy traffic, donned his safety vest and press credentials, and tried to keep his camera dry in the downpour. (Here is how the Herald covered it. The Boston Globe’s package is here.) Not as easy as it looks. Just ask the former photo staff of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Image via Today’s Front Pages at the Newseum.