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The Eagle-Tribune accidentally publishes a page-one memo

The Eagle-Tribune, which is based in North Andover and serves the Merrimack Valley, accidentally published its page-one memo for Aug. 3 on its website. An alert reader sent it to me. It has since been taken down, but I saved it in Evernote. Nothing scandalous, but I thought you might get a kick out of getting a look at the sausage-making process. Below is the front page that the memo describes.

Should the Globe have used private data to try to expose a toxic commenter?

Boston City Hall. Photo (cc) 2005 by Ken Lund.

A story in The Boston Globe reports that a caustic online commenter appears to be posting “vicious Internet attacks” against Mayor Michelle Wu and others from a city email address and a shared subscription used by city councilors and staff members. The comments have been published under the handle “Interested Party.”

Globe reporter Emma Platoff writes that “the comments posted by the Interested Party account stand out because they appear to be authored by one or more of those public officials’ colleagues — members of the City Council or council employees — according to account details and people with knowledge of the subscription.”

It’s not the first time I’ve seen a news outlet do this. The one that stands out in my mind involved a Haverhill city councilor who was exposed years ago by the local newspaper. I’ll get to that. But, first, more on the Globe’s story.

Although the Globe doesn’t have enough information to identify the person (or persons) behind the comments, Platoff appears to have used internal information provided by every user (“account details”) in order to get as far as she did. If you look at comments on the Globe’s website (or just about any other website), you won’t find any email addresses — that’s information you provide when you sign up, but it doesn’t appear alongside your screen name. Likewise, the Globe almost certainly has access to each commenter’s IP (internet protocol) address, which can help the paper locate where a user is based.

Nor does the Globe warn users that it reserves the right to use information commenters provide in order to track them down. If you try to post a comment, you’ll find guidelines that speak to what’s allowed and what isn’t; but there’s nothing about the possibility of being outed. (The guidelines refer not to the Globe but to its free sister site, I’m not sure whether that means the rules haven’t been updated for years or if it’s simply an indication that the same rules are in effect at both places.) Another message advises you, “This comment may appear on your public profile.” But when you click on the “Public Profile FAQ,” you hit a 404.

The question is whether it’s ethical to use information that the Globe’s subscribers freely give the paper in order to track them down. Users have a right to expect that their information won’t be used to violate their privacy. Platoff wasn’t able to expose “Interested Party,” but she’d clearly like to. Is that fair?

All of that brings me to the Haverhill situation I mentioned up top. In 2008, The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover reported that a Haverhill city councilor named James Donahue had posted comments on the paper’s website under at least 38 different screen names, an accusation that Donahue partly confirmed, though he claimed that some of the comments had actually been posted by someone else. As I wrote at the time, Donahue’s activities included lambasting the mayor and some of his colleagues. The Tribune apparently used the IP address attached to Donahue’s multitudinous screen names in order to locate him and to figure out that all those screen names were coming from the same computer. The Tribune defended its actions in an editorial:

It is not the general practice of this newspaper to seek the identity of those who comment on stories, although there is no explicit guarantee of anonymity. Virtually all the management of the comments section of the online edition is aimed at removing posts that are profane, racist or personal attacks.

However, one of the forum moderators noticed a pattern of posts under dozens of different names, and then discovered that they had all come from the same computer address. When it became clear that they were coming from the computer of an elected public official, it became our obligation to let the public know.

The average citizen does not take an oath to serve the public. An elected official does. An attempt to deceive the public is clearly not serving it, and a public official who does so is not only undeserving of the protection of confidentiality, but deserves public criticism.

I was uncomfortable with the Tribune’s actions, and I said so, writing: “It seems to me that the paper has chosen to humiliate Donahue for doing something the paper itself implicitly invited him to do, and that it used information available to no one else.” But many of my commenters disagreed with me and sided with the Tribune, arguing — as the paper itself had — that Donahue’s status as a public official overrode any expectations of online privacy that he might have had.

Which brings me back to the Globe and “Interested Party.” Arguably, there is a public-interest reason to try to expose the commenter. The comments are being posted by a public official or officials, whether they are members of the city council or employees. It’s a story, and it will be interesting to see whether the Globe is able to take the next step and name names. It makes me a little queasy, as The Eagle-Tribune’s actions did 15 years ago. On balance, though, I think my commenters were right in 2008 and that the Globe is right now.

A final observation: The Globe’s comments are a toxic-waste pit. The paper shouldn’t have them unless it’s willing to screen all of them before they’re posted. If that’s impossible, then get rid of them. Plenty of news organizations have, and no one seems to miss them.

The Globe loses its contract to print The New York Times

Sign outside the Globe’s printing plant in Taunton. Photo (cc) 2018 by Dan Kennedy.

The Boston Globe has lost its contract to print the regional edition of The New York Times at its Taunton facility. The Times will instead now be printed at the Dow Jones plant in Chicopee. Dow Jones is the parent company of The Wall Street Journal.

When the Globe’s Taunton printing plant opened in 2017, the hope was that it could turn a profit for the paper by taking on outside clients. The facility got off to a rough start, though, with publisher-owner John Henry writing a front-page note to subscribers admitting that the presses “are operating too slowly and breaking too often.” He added: “We are embarrassed. We are sincerely sorry to all those affected.” In my 2018 book, “The Return of the Moguls,” I described the launch of the Taunton plant as a “disaster.”

At one point, the Globe printed the Times, the Boston Herald and USA Today. The Herald decamped for The Providence Journal some time ago. When I asked Globe spokeswoman Heidi Flood whether the Taunton facility currently has any outside work, she answered only that “we are always exploring ways to bring more work into the plant.” She did say that Taunton now handles the entire Globe print run. At one time the Globe was jobbing some of its run out to The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover; I’m not sure when that stopped.

I’ve heard that the Taunton plant has laid some employees off as well, but Flood did not address that when I asked her about it by email. The full text of her statement follows.

I can confirm that the Times decided not to renew their printing contract with the Globe. We worked very hard over many months to keep their business in a way that also worked for ours, but were not able to arrive at a financially sustainable agreement. While the pending NYT departure is disappointing, from a business perspective it’s the right decision and positions us more favorably for the future.

The Times’s decision to print elsewhere will not affect our Globe print operations. Taunton currently handles the entire Globe print run and we are always exploring ways to bring more work into the plant. First and foremost, the Globe remains committed to meeting the needs of our valuable print subscribers.

WHAV Radio takes note of the 200th anniversary of The Haverhill Gazette

The Haverhill Gazette in the early 1900s. Photo via WHAV.

The Haverhill Gazette marked its 200th anniversary in 2021, and WHAV Radio has taken note of the occasion in a lengthy tribute. The Gazette, an independently owned daily for most of its existence, launched WHAV in 1947 under the auspices of a publisher who was distantly related to the Taylor family, which then owned The Boston Globe. The station was revived about 15 years ago and converted to a nonprofit, low-power FM station (it also streams) by local advertising executive Tim Coco, who continues to run it as an independent source of news.

Coco and David Goudsward trace the Gazette from its founding in 1821 to the present day. I had no idea that Haverhill’s favorite son, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, was the editor for a brief period in the 1830s.

A long series of events that led to the shrinkage of the Gazette began in 1957, when William Loeb, the notorious right-wing publisher of the Manchester Union Leader (now the New Hampshire Union Leader), took advantage of a strike at the Gazette by starting a competing paper, the Haverhill Journal. Coco and Goudsward write that the Gazette was sold to a consortium comprising The Eagle-Tribune, then of Lawrence, now of North Andover; The Sun of Lowell; and Vermont’s Burlington Free Press.

John Greenleaf Whittier. Image via the National Portrait Gallery.

Although the arrangement somehow managed to pass antitrust muster, I’m old enough to recall stories that The Eagle-Tribune and The Sun weren’t going to let the Gazette get too good. The Gazette changed hands several more times and in 1998 was sold to The Eagle-Tribune. Today, the Gazette is a weekly. Both the Gazette and The Eagle-Tribune, which remains a daily, are owned by CNHI, a corporate newspaper chain based in Montgomery, Alabama. As Coco and Goudsward write of the Gazette:

It is better off than the thousands of newspapers that have succumbed in recent years, but still a shadow of its former self — the victim, first of consolidation that reduced it from a robust daily to a weekly, and then of the loss of its advertising base to electronic media.

For several years, I followed news coverage in Haverhill quite closely, as it was the first community chosen by the Banyan Project in which to launch a cooperatively owned news organization, to be known as Haverhill Matters. The idea never came to fruition despite years of planning. During those same years, Coco was building WHAV into a vital source of local news and information, both over the air and online.

David Joyner leaves as executive editor the North of Boston newspapers

David Joyner is leaving his position as executive editor of the North of Boston Media Group newspapers, which comprise four dailies — The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times — as well as some affiliated publications. His announcement to the staff, which I obtained from a trusted source earlier today, is as follows:

Good morning,

I hope this note gets ahead of the rumor mill but it may only serve to confirm it. I want to let you all know that I will be moving on from my role as executive editor of the North of Boston Media Group, effective Oct. 1. John Celestino, our publisher, will announce plans as to my successor in the near future.

I want to take this opportunity to tell you all what a privilege it’s been to work with you. The work we do is important. When news breaks or we land a big story, it’s super-energizing. But the most rewarding part of this job is — always has been — working with you.

I’m not certain of next steps, apart from taking a few days to finish a couple of books and go to hockey practice and the bus stop. But we’re not planning to leave Andover. So, if I don’t get a chance to see you in the next couple of weeks, please don’t be a stranger.

My best to all of you,


The North of Boston papers are owned by the CNHI chain of Montgomery, Alabama.

Outing an anonymous commenter leads to a libel suit against Nieman Lab

Is it acceptable for a website operator to make use of registration data not known to anyone else in order to expose the identity of an offensive commenter? That’s one of the main issues in a libel suit against Nieman Journalism Lab founder Joshua Benton. Bill Grueskin explains the case in detail at the Columbia Journalism Review. (Disclosure: I know and like Benton, and wrote for him from time to time when he was the Lab’s editor; he is still a staff writer. I continue to contribute to the Lab occasionally.)

Way back in 2008, when the internet was still powered by coal, The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover did something similar. I wrote about it at the time. A Haverhill city councilor was caught posting to the newspaper’s website under 38 different screen names. The Eagle-Tribune outed him using information no one else could have known, arguing:

The average citizen does not take an oath to serve the public. An elected official does. An attempt to deceive the public is clearly not serving it, and a public official who does so is not only undeserving of the protection of confidentiality, but deserves public criticism.

Two differences between the cases. First, the person suing Benton, former Temple University journalism professor Francesca Viola, is not a public official. Second, Viola claims that in addition to exposing her for comments she made at Nieman Lab, Benton also attributed to her anti-Muslim comments made on another site — and she contends she did not make those comments.

As Grueskin notes, these problems can easily be avoided by requiring commenters to register and post under their real names. But, he adds, “an administrator can’t have it both ways, promising anonymity and then using special access to expose someone’s identity.” I agree — and I remain troubled by the choice that The Eagle-Tribune made nearly 13 years ago as well.

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Mystery solved

Karen Andreas, who abruptly left her position as publisher of the Eagle-Tribune newspapers north of Boston last month, has been named chief executive officer of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce.

Karen Andreas is out as publisher of The Eagle-Tribune

Karen Andreas is out as publisher of The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover and its sister papers, which include dailies in Salem, Newburyport and Gloucester. It seems pretty sudden. I don’t know any details. A friend sent this along.

Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.

Four dailies north of Boston sold to Alabama retirement fund

The CNHI newspapers have been sold to Retirement Systems of Alabama. CNHI’s holdings in Massachusetts include four daily newspapers — The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times — as well as several non-daily publications.

This is good news, with reservations. CNHI’s ownership has long been complicated; the Alabama buyer has been involved for years, so this doesn’t seem like much of a change. CNHI has run the papers on the cheap, but the quality remains good. I know that staff members were concerned that the papers might be sold to Digital First Media or GateHouse Media, hedge-fund-owned chains that slash their properties to the bone. So it could have been worse.

Earlier: “Eagle-Tribune and affiliated papers north of Boston put up for sale” (June 25, 2018).

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Eagle-Tribune and affiliated papers north of Boston put up for sale

The CNHI newspaper chain is up for sale. The company, with newspapers in 22 states, owns several properties in Massachusetts, including The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times. CNHI merged with Raycom Media last September. What prompts the sale, apparently, is that Raycom is being acquired by a television company that wants to be rid of its newspapers.

CNHI, based in Montgomery, Alabama, is owned by public employee pension funds in that state. Its papers have been operated on the cheap, with staff members being subjected to unpaid furloughs over the years. But we are now in an era of defining deviancy down with respect to chain newspaper owners, which means that the pending sale is nothing to celebrate. The alternatives are likely to be bad or worse.

The logical buyers would be either of two national chains: GateHouse Media, which owns more than 100 papers in Eastern Massachusetts, or Digital First Media, which owns the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg. GateHouse, at least, has been getting some favorable attention lately. Not so much for Digital First.

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