Jim Haggerty receives a top honor from New England’s newspaper association

Last week I received some very good news — Jim Haggerty, the editor of The Daily Times Chronicle in Woburn, had been selected to receive the Bob Wallack Community Journalism Award from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. I worked for Jim from 1979-’89, and I was delighted that I was asked to say a few words. Here’s the text of my remarks:

Congratulations to Jim Haggerty for winning the Bob Wallack Community Journalism Award. The award “recognizes an individual who has an exceptional record of commitment to community journalism.” Through his work at The Daily Times Chronicle and through his years of mentoring young journalists, Jim, along with the entire Haggerty family, have shown that they are committed to the highest ideals of local news.

I first met Jim in 1979, when I began working as a part-time reporter covering the town of Winchester. A few months later, after I graduated from Northeastern, Jim hired me. I learned from him and his family what community journalism was about — telling tough stories when they need to be told, but doing it with compassion and with an understanding that holding local government officials, business people and others accountable is not incompatible with treating them like human beings. It’s a lesson I’ve tried to carry with me throughout my own career.

During my 10 years at The Daily Times Chronicle, the paper covered the years-long story of Woburn’s toxic waste tragedy comprehensively and courageously. Families in East Woburn claimed that contaminated drinking water had resulted in their children contracting leukemia and other illnesses. Several of them died. The pressure on Jim and his family from city officials to tone down the coverage must have been overwhelming. But that never trickled down to those of us who were covering the story. Jim’s dedication to journalism and truth-telling during those years was inspiring.

These days, local news is in crisis, as the internet has undermined advertising revenues while corporate chains and hedge funds are slashing the newspapers that they own. The residents of Woburn and the surrounding communities are lucky that The Daily Times Chronicle is still family-owned, still doing good work and still dedicated to the principles that have sustained it for the past hundred years. Best wishes to you, Jim — and good luck to you and your family as you embark on the next hundred.

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.

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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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Does better news coverage lead to greater voter engagement? The answer: It depends.

Meaningful participation in civic life isn’t possible without access to high-quality news and information. Consider the most fundamental aspect of community engagement: voting in local elections. If prospective voters lack the means to inform themselves about candidates for the select board, the city council, the school committee and the like, then it follows that they will be less likely to vote.

But is the reverse also true? Does the presence of a reliable news source result in a higher level of voter participation? To find out, I compared two towns, Bedford and Burlington, both northwest of Boston.

Read the rest at Storybench, a website about media innovation published by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

38 years down the road

Now here’s something sobering to think about. Recently I had a chance to talk about “The Return of the Moguls” with Phil Gallagher of “BNews,” part of Burlington Cable Access Television. And Phil informed me that the first time I was on his show was 38 years ago, when he was a Burlington selectman and I was a reporter for The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn. I guess we should both be grateful that we’re still upright.

Jim Braude will succeed Emily Rooney at ‘Greater Boston’

Jim Braude. Photo by Tracy Powell/WGBH.
Jim Braude. Photo by Tracy Powell/WGBH.

Congratulations to Jim Braude, who has been named Emily Rooney’s successor as host of “Greater Boston” on WGBH-TV (Channel 2). Given that Braude already co-hosts “Boston Public Radio” with Margery Eagan on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM), the move makes a great deal of sense.

(Conflict alert: I am a paid panelist on Channel 2’s Friday “Beat the Press” and an unpaid contributor to WGBHNews.org. And yes, Rooney will continue to host “Beat the Press.”)

I covered Braude as far back as the 1980s, when he was head of the liberal Tax Equity Alliance for Massachusetts and I was a reporter for the Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn. He and Barbara Anderson, who ran Citizens for Limited Taxation, often debated in public, even traveling together despite their different ideological viewpoints.

In 1996 I interviewed Braude when he was launching a liberal magazine called Otherwise and I was covering the media for The Boston Phoenix. The idea, he told me at the time, was motivated in part by complaints on the left that they were too often ignored by the mainstream.

“We’ve done so much bitching about media access for so long that my reaction is to just do it,” Braude said. “The environment is as ripe as it could be.”

Otherwise had a decent run, but as is generally the case with startup magazines, it eventually faded away. Braude hasn’t. His program on New England Cable News, “BroadSide,” which he’s leaving, has been a bastion of intelligence for years. His radio show with Eagan — the only listenable program on the late, unlamented WTKK — was so good that it brought both of them to WGBH.

The big question is how “Greater Boston” will change with Braude at the helm. “I love Emily,” he tells The Boston Globe’s Shirley Leung. “We are different people with different styles. Beyond that, stay tuned.”