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.
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.
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.
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.
The trade magazine Editor & Publisher has named Karen Andreas, regional publisher of four daily newspapers and several affiliated publications north of Boston, as its Publisher of the Year. The dailies: The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and The Gloucester Daily Times.
The papers, known collectively as the North of Boston Media Group, are owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (CNHI) of Montgomery, Alabama.
The Boston Business Journal has come up aces during the past week with two meaty stories on local media news.
• A shaky future at the Globe. The first, published last Friday, found that confidential financial documents put together by the New York Times Co. suggest The Boston Globe was in slightly worse shape than outside observers might have imagined when the paper and several affiliated properties were sold to Red Sox principal owner John Henry for $70 million in early August. The BBJ’s Craig Douglas writes (sub. req.):
In essence, Henry is buying into a borderline breakeven enterprise already teed up for $35 million in cost cuts over a two-year period before he even walks through the door.
How bad is it? According to the documents cited by Douglas, advertising revenue at the New England Media Group (NEMG) — mainly the Globe, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and Boston.com — is expected to be 31 percent below the 2009 level next year. And paid print circulation revenue continues to slip despite price increases at the Globe and the T&G.
You may have heard people say at the time of the sale that Boston.com was worth more than the Globe itself. Well, I don’t think you’ve heard me say it. Print advertising remains far more valuable than online, and that holds true at NEMG as well. Douglas writes:
The Globe is by far the biggest revenue generator of the group, accounting for 69 percent, or about $255 million, of its forecasted revenue this year. The Telegram & Gazette in Worcester is next in line at $42.5 million in forecasted revenue this year, while Boston.com is on track to book about $40 million.
Print products account for about 88 percent of NEMG’s total annual revenue. That heavy reliance on print-related advertising and circulation revenue has proven particularly problematic of late, as both categories have lost ground since 2009 and are forecasted to see continued deterioration for the foreseeable future.
Douglas’ story is protected behind a paywall, but if you can find a print edition, you should. Suffice it to say that John Henry has his work cut out for him. The picture Douglas paints is not catastrophic. But it does show that the Globe is not quite as far along the road toward figuring out the digital future as some of us might have hoped.
• Tough times ahead for local papers. The other big media splash, which I linked to last night, is Jon Chesto’s analysis of the sale of Rupert Murdoch’s Dow Jones Local Newspaper Group (formerly Ottaway Newspapers) to an investment firm affiliated with GateHouse Media. The papers sold include three prominent Greater Boston dailies: The Standard-Times of New Bedford, the Cape Cod Times and the Portsmouth Herald, on the New Hampshire seacoast.
Chesto’s article is part of the BBJ’s free offerings, so by all means read the whole thing. It’s a real eye-opener, as he explains as best anyone can at this early stage what the sale and simultaneous bankruptcy of GateHouse will mean for local papers and the communities they serve. Unfortunately, indications are the news will be very bad indeed.
Fairport, N.Y.-based GateHouse, which publishes about 100 local papers in Eastern Massachusetts (including The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, The Enterprise of Brockton and The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham), will somehow be combined with the entity that holds the former Ottaway papers into a new company with the uninspired name of New Media (that may change). (Update: Chesto is a former business editor of The Patriot Ledger, which no doubt helped him write his piece with a real air of authority. And thanks to Roy Harris for reminding me of that.)
The deal with Murdoch — at $82 million, quite a bit more than I had anticipated — was done through Newcastle Investment Corp., a real estate investment trust that is part of Fortress Investment Group, which in turn is GateHouse’s principal backer.
The powers-that-be are already talking about slashing the Ottaway papers, which are among the best local dailies in the region. Chesto writes:
The papers are described as “under-managed by News Corp.” with “expense reductions of only 6% since 2010.” Translation: We can take more out of the expenses than News Corp. did. GateHouse has been an aggressive cost cutter in recent years, most notably with efforts to consolidate most of its page design and layout functions. That work was centralized in two locations, including an office in Framingham. But it will soon be downsized further, into one location in Austin, Texas.
Yes, Murdoch, the “genocidal tyrant,” is likely to prove a better steward of local journalism than the people he’s selling to.
Post-bankruptcy, with $1.2 billion in debt off their backs, the executives now running GateHouse are going to be empowered. According to a presentation put together for investors, Chesto writes, New Media may spend $1 billion to buy up local media companies over the next three years.
Chesto doesn’t say so, but if I were working for the Eagle-Tribune papers north of Boston (The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times), I’d be polishing that résumé right now. On the other hand, those papers have already been cut so much under the Alabama-based CNHI chain that it’s not like a new owner could do a whole lot worse.
At a time when there are reasons to be hopeful about the newspaper business thanks to the interest of people like John Henry, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett, the GateHouse deal shows that there are still plenty of reasons to be worried about the future.
Later this year the Banyan Project is scheduled to roll out its first cooperatively owned news site in the city of Haverhill, to be called Haverhill Matters. Banyan founder Tom Stites’ vision is to serve what he calls “news deserts” — low- and moderate-income communities, mainly urban, that are underserved by traditional media. What follows is the third of several blog posts in which I will attempt to assess the media landscape in Haverhill as it exists today.
“Eyes Wide Open” may be a travelogue, but it’s not the sort of spritely fare you’re likely to see on the Travel Channel. There are no sun-dappled beaches or cocktail-fueled soirées. Rather, it’s a film with a civic purpose — to get Haverhill residents to take a close look at their downtown and the waterfront along the Merrimack River.
“As we look at each one of these slides, we want you to think about three very simple concepts,” says Haverhill architect Celeste Hynick at the beginning of the film. “What are the positive features? What needs to be improved? And what opportunities exist?” For the next 20 minutes, she and designer Mike Valvo consider the good, the bad and the ugly as picture after picture scrolls by.
The film recapitulates a presentation made last year to a city planning committee appointed by Mayor James Fiorentini. And it is the type of program that helps define Haverhill Community Television (HCTV), which cablecast the film earlier this summer and now hosts it on its YouTube channel.
“Our mission is to empower the community to make television programs,” said HCTV executive director Darlene Beal when I interviewed her last week. “To tell their story to the community. In that sense, we feel like we mirror the community.”
Beal and I met in a conference room at her station’s headquarters, a large converted auto-repair shop in a residential neighborhood just north of the downtown. A 51-year-old Haverhill native and Boston University graduate, Beal has worked as HCTV’s executive director for most of her career. The operation is currently marking its 25th year as an independent nonprofit organization following several years as an appendage of the local cable company.
Haverhill, of course, is not unusual in having a community television station. Virtually every city or town has one, funded by law with a share of the license fees paid by the local cable franchise-holder. Here, for instance, is a list of such operations in Massachusetts.
Why bigger is better
But because franchise-holders generally pay fees on a per-household basis, larger cities and towns tend to have superior community stations. Boston, Cambridge and Somerville, for instance, all offer quite a bit in terms of both quality and quantity. Likewise Haverhill, with a population of about 60,000, including 24,000 households that subscribe to cable, is able to do more than many smaller communities.
HCTV has an annual budget of $750,000 to $800,000, Beal told me, and employs seven people, four of them full-time. There are about 600 members, she said, with about 20 percent to 25 percent involved in some aspect of production. Its Facebook page has attracted 468 “likes” as of this writing.
HCTV operates three channels — an educational channel, with a studio at Haverhill High School; a governmental channel, with equipment at City Hall to carry city council meetings and the like; and a public access channel, with two studios and a classroom based at HCTV’s headquarters. The educational and public access channels are live-streamed on HCTV’s website, which also archives many but not all past programs.
Beal has no way of knowing how many people watch HCTV on television. But according to Google Analytics data Beal shared with me, the website received 127 visits during the last week of July, with 104 coming from Massachusetts — presumably most from Haverhill. The public access channel carries programming from about 6 to 10 p.m. each weekday, and is repeated so that it’s on for 16 to 20 hours a day. Weekends are devoted to programming provided by local religious institutions.
As is the case with public access operations in general, HCTV does not produce its own programming. Rather, it helps volunteers by offering training and loaning them equipment, then cablecasting the finished product. Public access programs in Haverhill include politically oriented talk shows; “Keeping the Peace,” produced by the Haverhill Community Violence Prevention Coalition; “I Get Around,” which highlights community events and organizations; “Law to Talk About,” a legal show; health, and the arts. During election season, the channel runs lengthy sit-down interviews with local candidates.
What you won’t see on HCTV is a newscast. That’s fairly typical. Although Boston viewers can watch “Neighborhood Network News” every evening, most public access systems, oriented as they are toward DIY media, simply don’t have the capacity for such an undertaking. (In 2007 I wrote about “Neighborhood Network News” for CommonWealth Magazine.)
Beal said she would like to see HCTV offer a newscast, but added that past efforts have been spotty because of the limited time volunteers have and their lack of training in newsgathering. If she were to head down that road again, she said she’d need money to hire someone to offer instruction in the basics of journalism.
Beal added that, in her view, the Haverhill edition of the local daily newspaper, The Eagle-Tribune, and The Haverhill Gazette, a weekly, fail to cover the city in the depth that it deserves, creating a “void.” (I wrote about the two papers in the first part of this series. The papers are owned by a chain, CNHI, based in Montgomery, Ala. Al White, the editor of The Eagle-Tribune and the Gazette, recently declined my request for an interview.)
“I do think they’re missing out on a lot, for whatever reason,” Beal said. “Maybe they don’t have the capacity because of the cutbacks. I don’t want to criticize the local papers, but there’s more news out there than they’re able to get into the paper.”
HCTV and Haverhill Matters
Like Tim Coco, the founder of the city’s online-mostly radio station, WHAV, whom I profiled in the second part of this series, Beal is a member of the planning committee for Haverhill Matters, a cooperatively owned news site that is scheduled to be launched by the end of 2013 under the auspices of the Banyan Project.
Haverhill Matters, envisioned as an online news organization combining paid and volunteer journalism, would be an additional outlet for the video journalism produced by HCTV members, Beal said — and is ideal for, say, a four- to six-minute story that doesn’t fit into any of the station’s regular programming, which tends to run in half-hour increments.
Beal would like to see the HCTV and Haverhill Matters websites tied together in some way. She also sees Haverhill Matters as an additional outlet for news about HCTV, such as awards it has won from the Alliance for Community Media for public service announcements about violence prevention.
Her overarching theme, though, was what might be described as the need for more well-rounded coverage of the community — something beyond the breaking-news coverage of police activity and fires that she sees as being typical of what the local papers offer.
“I would like to see Haverhill Matters covering more of the schools,” she said. “The ins and outs of the community. The vibrancy of the community. It’s not so much what I want to see covered — it’s probably the tone of which I’d like to see it covered.”
We also talked about the length of time it’s taken for Haverhill Matters to get off the ground. When I first started writing about the project, it was scheduled to launch in 2012, but that date got delayed for a variety of reasons. Recently Mike LaBonte, co-chair of the planning committee, told me by email that he was reasonably confident that the launch would take place before the end of 2013 — but maybe not much before. For Beal, that moment can’t come too soon.
“For Haverhill Matters to succeed,” Beal said, “I think we’re at the point that we have to splash into the community. We have to get people talking about what they’re missing, or else they don’t know what they’re missing. It’s time to either do it or don’t do it.”
We tried hard to make our website’s comments feature a forum for the exchange of opinion and information.
Sure, many commenters posted thoughtful remarks and adhered to the highest standards.
But far too many used the feature to spew vitriol, bigotry, obscenity, cheap shots and juvenile taunts, no matter how hard we worked to keep the conversation civil.
The Eagle-Tribune will let people register under their real names using either Facebook or Disqus.
White also raises an interesting issue — that news-site comments may have run their course, as much of the online conversation has shifted to Facebook, Twitter and other social media. “We have almost 8,000 Twitter followers, for example, 5,000 on our text alert service and more than 4,000 on Facebook,” he writes. “Those numbers are growing. I’d guess we have fewer than 100 ‘regulars’ commenting on Disqus, and that number appears to be shrinking.”
It’s a phenomenon I and many others have noticed. Comments on Media Nation posts have dropped off considerably in recent years. But when I link to a Media Nation post on Facebook, the responses roll in.
Some sites, like the New Haven Independent, have done a good job of integrating anonymous comments into the conversation. But a real-names policy can definitely be part of a well-tended comments garden. Good move on The Eagle-Tribune’s part.
Later this year the Banyan Project is scheduled to roll out its first cooperatively owned news site in the city of Haverhill, to be called Haverhill Matters. Banyan founder Tom Stites’ vision is to serve what he calls “news deserts” — low- and moderate-income communities, mainly urban, that are underserved by traditional media. What follows is the second of several blog posts in which I will attempt to assess the media landscape in Haverhill as it exists today.
Brian is on the line, and he’s got an idea. City officials in Haverhill have announced that they plan to reopen a former rest stop along Route 110, closed 15 years ago when it became overrun with drug dealing and illicit sex. Brian’s suggestion: a webcam.
Tim Coco, host of “The Open Mike Show” on WHAV Radio (as well as the station’s founder and chief executive), wonders out loud what Mayor James Fiorentini would make of Brian’s idea. He cracks a joke about the National Security Agency watching the webcam.
“That doesn’t offend your sense of security then?” Coco asks.
“No, I wouldn’t even think about it,” Brian responds.
And so it goes for two hours, as Coco talks about Haverhill news, history and trivia with a handful of callers.
Since 2004, Coco has been running WHAV out of his advertising agency, Coco & Co., located in an office park off Route 495 in the Ward Hill section of Haverhill. The station is mostly online (at www.whav.net) and mostly automated.
But Coco’s got big ideas. By mid-2014, he hopes to have obtained a lower-power FM license from the FCC so that he can reach all of Haverhill — something that is only barely possible now with the station’s weak AM signal, at 1640. He also hopes to pump up the station’s live, local public-affairs programming, replacing all or most of the oldies music that now fills most of the day.
“The Merrimack Valley requires an independent voice,” Coco wrote in a fundraising pitch titled “WHAV’s Democracy, Independence & Sustainability Project.” “With support, the reborn and not-for-profit WHAV is not only well-positioned to become that institution, but serve as a model for other community media efforts.”
I spent the better part of a day with Coco last week. A 52-year-old Haverhill native, he is a former journalist, having worked at the original WHAV (founded in 1947 and affiliated with The Haverhill Gazette, then an independent daily newspaper) and, later, at The Daily News of Newburyport and as the editor of an environmental trade magazine based in Manchester, N.H.
Although the current version of WHAV is only nine years old, Coco clearly sees the station as an extension of the original, which, like so many stations, fell victim to corporate buyouts. The small studio from which he broadcasts “Open Mike” every Monday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. has been rather grandly dubbed the Edwin V. Johnson Newsroom, after a beloved WHAV news director and Haverhill High School teacher. Among the past employees of WHAV are retired WBZ news anchor Gary LaPierre and Tom Bergeron, the host of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”
“I read the news, Tom Bergeron read the jokes and look where he is today,” said Coco with a laugh. “That is the lot of news people, isn’t it?”
Coco is a well-known public figure in Haverhill. He is a member of the Haverhill Licence Commission, serves on various civic boards and in 2012 was a candidate for the Massachusetts Senate. (He stepped away from “Open Mike” during the campaign.) Although he lost the Democratic primary to the eventual winner, Kathleen O’Connor Ives, he is quick to point out that he won Haverhill. Coco and his husband, Genesio “Junior” Oliveira, have fought a high-profile battle to prevent Oliveira from being deported to his native Brazil — a battle that Coco hopes is over now that the Defense of Marriage Act has been ruled unconstitutional.
What Coco is attempting with WHAV is the revival of the old-fashioned local radio station. Right now, he admits, he does it essentially with smoke and mirrors. “I’m embarrassed to say, actually, that we’re doing it the way corporate radio does it, which is a lot of automation,” he said. “Believe me, it’s less than ideal, and I want to get to a point where we’re staffed at least 18 hours a day.”
Nevertheless, there is some local programming, such as “Open Mike,” as well as syndicated programming from left-leaning services such as Pacifica and Free Speech Radio News that are not often heard on the airwaves. Thom Hartmann, a syndicated liberal talk-show host, is on from 3 to 6 p.m. every weekday. Old-time radio dramas, including “Our Miss Brooks” and “Gunsmoke,” are heard at 10 p.m.
Most important, there is local news, some of it reported by Coco. He also has a part-time public affairs manager, Nathan Webster, as well as two summer interns. Local weather is provided by Hometown Forecast Services in Nashua, N.H., which Coco says is more Merrimack Valley-specific than what the Boston stations are able to offer. “Community Spotlight” consists of brief announcements about local events and community organizations.
WHAV’s microscopic news operation can’t compete with what’s offered by the daily Eagle-Tribune and its affiliated weekly, The Haverhill Gazette. But Coco said his station sometimes breaks stories, and as example he cited one that he reported himself — a downtown development proposal being led by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. (Here is The Eagle-Tribune’s story on the proposal.)
“They do feel us a little bit now,” Coco said. “We have been beating them on stories, and they’re starting to pay attention.” (As I wrote last week, Eagle-Tribune editor Al White declined my request for an interview.)
How many people does WHAV reach? It’s a difficult question to answer. One month last fall, Coco said, some 62,000 unique users tuned in to the Internet station, though he added that drops off considerably during the summer. He said he has no way of knowing how many listeners tune in to the AM signal, or to the simulcast that runs during parts of the day on local-access cable stations in Haverhill, Andover, Methuen and the New Hampshire communities of Plaistow and Sandown. (The station was thrown off the Groveland cable system in 2007. Coco claims the action was taken because the then-host of “Open Mike” was criticizing local politicians.)
But there’s no question the station’s listenership should increase if Coco succeeds in obtaining a low-power FM (LPFM) license from the FCC. Coco will apply this October, and could receive approval within about nine months if there are no competing applications or other complications. The proposal — for a 23-watt signal — “should well cover Haverhill,” Coco said. The broadcast frequency is likely to be 98.1 FM.
The LPFM program was created in 2000 to offset the decline of local commercial radio. LPFM licenses are available only to nonprofit organizations, and in 2011 Coco formed Public Media of New England as a 501(c)(3) entity to act as WHAV’s umbrella operation.
The Banyan connection
As WHAV expands, it’s going to need more programming in general and more local programming in particular. Coco is a member of the organizing committee for Haverhill Matters, the cooperatively owned news site that the Banyan Project is scheduled to launch before the end of 2013.
Coco expects to broadcast repurposed content from Haverhill Matters on WHAV, and added that he can also play a role in providing some of the “institutional memory” for Haverhill Matters that may be lacking with “newbie reporters.” Although Haverhill Matters will hire a full-time professional editor, Banyan Project founder Tom Stites and the organizing committee also talk about using interns from Northern Essex Community College, neighborhood bloggers and the like.
Haverhill Matters and an expanded WHAV both represent ambitious visions for local, independent media organizations, and it will take a certain amount of blind faith — my phrase, not Coco’s — for those visions to become a reality.
For instance, when I asked Coco about his plan to increase spending at WHAV from $38,000 in 2013 to $93,000 in 2015, he replied matter-of-factly, “It is a projection, but it has to.” And he expessed skepticism about Stites’ plan to raise $54,000 for Haverhill Matters by persuading 1,500 people to pay $36 each.
“It isn’t feasible, and this isn’t feasible,” Coco said, referring to Haverhill Matters and to his own efforts at WHAV. “And I do have some long-term worries in both cases.”
Later in the day, Coco played tour guide, driving me around Haverhill, from a downtown damaged by an urban renewal project that never quite came to pass to more rural sections such as Winnekenni Castle and the John Greenleaf Whittier Birthplace, for which Coco serves as president of the board of trustees.
“I feel like George Bailey from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” Coco said “I really didn’t get to leave Bedford Falls. Whether we remain Bedford Falls or become Pottersville remains to be seen.”
Coco believes that strong, independent local media are a key to keeping his Bedford Falls vision of Haverhill intact. The next few years will be crucial to determining whether he and the folks at Haverhill Matters can succeed.