Haverhill Matters moves closer to reality

The Bradford Bridge, looking north toward downtown Haverhill
The Bradford Bridge, looking north toward downtown Haverhill

This article appeared earlier at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

It was as incongruous a situation as I could imagine. Friday, April 19, was one of the most gripping news days we have ever experienced in Massachusetts. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the suspected marathon bombers, was in hiding. Boston and several other cities were under voluntary lockdown. And that morning I was driving north, toward Haverhill, on my way to a meeting where earnest community activists were making plans to revive local journalism.

While all hell was breaking loose elsewhere, the Haverhill Matters Organizing Committee met in a sunny conference room at Haverhill Community Television. The committee’s goal is to launch a cooperatively owned news site to be called Haverhill Matters sometime this year.

It’s been a long time coming. Tom Stites, a veteran journalist who’s worked at the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, came up with the idea of local news co-ops a few years ago. He founded the Banyan Project to serve as an umbrella; Haverhill Matters will be the pilot. I wrote about his plans for the Nieman Journalism Lab last year, as well as in the epilogue to my forthcoming book about online community journalism, “The Wired City.” The launch date for Haverhill Matters has slipped a few times, but at this point it looks like 2013 will be the year.

The hour-long meeting was taken up with fairly mundane planning issues, but I could see that the site is moving toward reality. Currently the committee is at the first of a four-stage process, outlined in considerable detail on the Banyan website. The organizers envision everything from crowdsourced reporting projects to quotidian coverage of local news. A board of directors will hire two full-time employees: an executive director and an editor. The site will also make ample use of freelancers, neighborhood bloggers, and college and high school interns.

After some back-and-forth about liability issues, the committee members agreed to sign on with the Cooperative Development Institute to handle Haverhill Matters’ finances. There were charts about finances and timetables, and about how the yet-to-be-hired editor should spend the 520 hours he or she will be working each quarter.

“We’re really at a go/no-go moment, and I think we’ve decided to go,” said Tim Coco, president and general manager of WHAV, an online radio station based in Haverhill.

“Well, we want to,” replied local activist Mike LaBonte, co-chair of the organizing committee.

Coco professed some skepticism about what he was hearing but supported the idea of moving ahead. “It’s not feasible,” he said, “but that’s never stopped me before.”

The Banyan Project is aimed at serving what Stites calls “news deserts” — less-than-affluent communities that tend to be shunned by high-end advertisers and, thus, by the news organizations that rely on those advertisers. Haverhill, a city of 61,000 on the Merrimack River at the New Hampshire line, meets that definition. The Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, or MassINC, lists Haverhill as one of 11 “Gateway Cities” — former manufacturing centers that are struggling with a lack of resources and economic investment.

Yet in other respects, Haverhill is an unlikely news desert. Though the days when two daily newspapers battled it out are long gone, the Eagle-Tribune, based in nearby North Andover, continues to publish a daily Haverhill edition. The Eagle-Tribune also publishes a weekly paper, the Haverhill Gazette, that offers local staples such as school news, feel-good features and announcements. Add in Haverhill Community Television, with its robust lineup of local programming, and WHAV, and it would appear that more than a few flowers are sprouting in this particular desert.

The real target, then, is the unaccountability of local journalism controlled by out-of-state corporations. For years now, the Eagle-Tribune’s owner, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (CNHI) of Montgomery, Ala., has been decimating its properties. Neither the Eagle-Tribune nor the Gazette has an office in Haverhill anymore. Thus Haverhill Matters represents an attempt by local residents to tell their own story.

In reporting “The Wired City,” I learned that there are problems with both the for-profit and nonprofit models of independent online local journalism. The owners of the for-profits — including sites like The BatavianCT News Junkie, and Baristanet — have to spend so much time selling advertising that it limits the amount of journalism they can afford to do.

Nonprofits such as the New Haven Independent, the main focus of my book, are more robust. But not every community is willing to support such a venture, and the Internet Revenue Service has made it increasingly difficult for such sites to attain nonprofit 501(c)(3) status. Moreover, nonprofits are prohibited from endorsing political candidates, traditionally an important activity for local news organizations.

A cooperatively owned news site — analogies include credit unions and food co-ops — would occupy a space somewhere between the two models, and would not be banned from publishing endorsements. Tom Stites is currently soliciting contributions for Haverhill Matters’ launch. Once the site is up and running, he hopes to attract 1,500 members at $36 a year, bringing in $54,000, as well as advertising and grant money. A chart Mike LaBonte displayed showed an initial $45,000 expenditure, with the site reaching break-even in two and a half years.

Unlike one-off projects such as the New Haven Independent or The Batavian, the intention behind Haverhill Matters is that it be replicable. Stites hopes the Banyan Project will be able to offer a “co-op in a box” to communities looking to start their own cooperatively owned news sites. But first he has to prove the model can work. Which is why Haverhill Matters matters.

Photo (cc) 2013 by Dan Kennedy. Some rights reserved.

Lantigua hails departure of Eagle-Tribune publisher

William Lantigua (left) meets with Gov. Deval Patrick in 2009, shortly before Lantigua took office as mayor of Lawrence. Patrick spent the day discussing Lawrence’s precarious finances with city officials.

William Lantigua, the ethically challenged mayor of Lawrence, has issued a statement celebrating the departure of Eagle-Tribune publisher Al Getler, according to Tom Duggan of the Valley Patriot.

“For the past six years, Al Getler has worked to discredit our community, our residents and our image as a whole from behind his desk in North Andover,” Lantigua wrote, adding that he plans to reach out to new publisher Karen Andreas “to better promote the positive news that continues to break in our City of Lawrence.”

I know Andreas slightly, and I assume she will tell Lantigua that the Eagle-Tribune will continue to hold him accountable.

Getler left as part of a shake-up at four daily papers north of Boston owned by the Alabama-based chain CNHI earlier this week. Andreas, who had been publisher of CNHI’s Salem News, is now regional publisher for all four dailies as well as the company’s weekly papers and websites.

Photo (cc) by the office of Gov. Patrick and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Alabama pension fund whacks local papers (2013 edition)

The Alabama state employees’ pension fund is on the rampage once again.

The Eagle-Tribune newspapers north of Boston axed two of its local publishers on Wednesday, while a third was moved to the position of regional advertising director. The sole surviving publisher, Karen Andreas, will become regional publisher of the daily and weekly newspapers, magazines and websites. The dailies are the Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, the Daily News of Newburyport, the Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times.

According to the paper’s Alabama-based owner, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (CNHI), “the reorganization is designed to refine the structure of its Massachusetts and New Hampshire properties to align them with the strategic print and digital objectives of the company in the North of Boston market.”

But CNHI, whose major investor is the Retirement Systems of Alabama, has been assiduously hacking away at its Massachusetts properties for years, laying off scores of employees and regularly subjecting those who’ve stayed to unpaid furloughs.

Here is the complete body count:

  • Al Getler, publisher of the Eagle-Tribune, and Sheila Smith, publisher of the Daily News, are out.
  • Mark Zappala, publisher of the Gloucester Daily Times, is the new regional ad director. Although it’s not mentioned in the official story, two sources tell me that Zappala will replace Tim Brady, who was also let go.
  • Andreas, publisher of the Salem News, moves up to regional publisher.

We are Salem News readers, and we are grateful that the paper has been able to keep together much of its skilled, experienced staff. At some point, though, this has to end. I would love to see CNHI try to find local investors to take the paper off its hands. Some days there are so few ads in the News that you wonder how they make payroll.* Is that just the way things are? Or could someone else do better?

*Update: Having heard from an insider, I should clarify. Pick up almost any daily paper, especially early in the week, and you’ll generally find that it’s remarkably thin compared to how many pages it would have comprised, say, 10 years ago. But I have no information on the CNHI papers’ profitability or lack thereof, and my off-the-cuff observation should be taken as no more than that. I also have no doubt the ad salespeople are working their butts off. It’s the out-of-state chain ownership that I question.

Photo (cc) by Joanna Poe and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

In Haverhill, from a newspaper war to a “news desert”

Haverhill’s historic shoe district

Banyan Project founder Tom Stites refers to Haverhill and cities like it as “news deserts” — that is, as communities so underserved by local journalism that government accountability and civic life are harmed. He and local activists hope to launch Banyan’s first online news co-op, Haverhill Matters, later this year. (I touch on Banyan in the Epilogue to “The Wired City.”)

Two generations ago, though, the mid-size industrial city, located in the Merrimack Valley near the New Hampshire border, was the scene of a daily newspaper war. According to an account recently published by the city’s online nonprofit radio station, WHAV, a newspaper strike led to years of debilitating rivalry between the established Haverhill Gazette and the upstart Haverhill Journal.

The Journal was started by the notorious William Loeb, owner of the Manchester Union Leader (now the New Hampshire Union Leader), in December 1957. The Gazette had temporarily ceased publishing after it was struck by members of the typographical union. And Haverhill merchants, worried that they had no place to advertise their Christmas wares, went to Loeb and asked him to do something. He published a couple of free shoppers, and then decided to start a full-fledged newspaper.

The WHAV article, by Tim Coco, is full of colorful details, especially concerning the federal antitrust case that grew out of the rivalry. In a nutshell, Loeb secretly paid businessmen to buy ads only in the Journal and to badmouth the Gazette at every opportunity. And the Gazette sold ads below cost, which can in some circumstances be illegal. But it was great for readers while it lasted. As Coco puts it at the beginning of his essay:

News media competition helps ensure the inner workings of every government department are exposed to the light of day and held accountable, every service club talk is covered and every military personnel homecoming is treated with reverence.

On the other hand, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Wyzanski, who presided over the antitrust hearings, concluded it was impossible for two daily papers in a city the size of Haverhill to operate profitably unless they offered “limited news coverage” and “inferior general quality.” The Gazette quickly ran into trouble, and in 1958 it was acquired by a consortium of newspaper publishers. The unstable rivalry persisted until Loeb shuttered the Journal in 1965.

Eventually the Gazette was acquired outright by The Eagle-Tribune, headquartered in North Andover but traditionally associated with Lawrence. The Eagle-Tribune started a daily Haverhill edition and converted the Gazette to a weekly. In 2005, The Eagle-Tribune and its affiliated papers on the North Shore were bought by CNHI, a Birmingham, Ala.-based chain. And as Coco notes, in March 2012, The Eagle-Tribune closed the Gazette’s Haverhill offices.

“After 191 years,” Coco writes, “The Haverhill Gazette no longer had a physical presence in Haverhill.”

Now, nearly a half-century after daily newspaper competition came to an end in Haverhill, the city is on the verge of becoming a hotbed of experimentation in community journalism. In addition to the Banyan Project, WHAV has launched something called the “Democracy, Independence and Sustainability Project.”

I’m hoping there’s going to be a lot more to come as 2013 unfolds.

Update: After I posted a link to this on Twitter, John Dodge let me know that another, lesser-known daily paper called the Independent published in Haverhill in the late 1970s. Begun by longtime Gazette staffers, Dodge says the Independent couldn’t survive because the DeMoulas supermarket chain wouldn’t buy any ads.

Earlier:

Photo by Marc N. Belanger via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor hangs up after accusing reporter of “harangue”

I want to share this exchange between Christian Science Monitor correspondent Jessica Bruder and Al White, editor of the North Andover-based Eagle-Tribune.

Bruder wrote a story about what happens to civic life in a community when newspapers die or shrink. And one of the topics she touches on is the Banyan Project, which is scheduled to roll out a cooperatively owned news site in Haverhill next year to be called Haverhill Matters.

The Eagle-Tribune covers Haverhill, as does an affiliated weekly, the Haverhill Gazette. So let’s check in, shall we? Bruder writes:

Dissenting from the notion that Haverhill is undercovered is Al White, editor of the Eagle-Tribune. The company, whose downtown Haverhill office closed in March, still publishes a regional paper covering more than a dozen towns including Haverhill, along with the weekly Haverhill Gazette.

“Name one community where people won’t say that,” Mr. White says, addressing local claims of inadequate coverage. “This is a silly conversation.” Asked in a phone interview about the home page of the Haverhill Gazette’s website, where the most recent story in the schools section was more than 100 days old, he replied, “Do you want to have a conversation, or do you just want to harangue me?” Then he hung up the phone.

Wow. And yes, as of this moment the most recent story in the Haverhill Gazette online schools section is exactly 123 days old.

Yet the daily Eagle-Tribune features fairly robust coverage of Haverhill as well as a separate Haverhill print edition. These are tough times. Just last week the Eagle-Tribune and its sister papers — owned by an out-of-state chain — eliminated 21 jobs.

In other words, Al White and his staff appear to be doing the best they can under difficult conditions. I’d like to think if he had simply said that, then the Christian Science Monitor — not exactly known for snarky negativity — would have given him a respectful hearing.

Bad news continues at New England newspapers

Bad news on two fronts today at New England newspapers owned by out-of-state chains.

First, the Providence Journal announced earlier today that it was eliminating 23 jobs. According to Jim Romenesko, the layoffs include photographers and the paper’s only librarian. Reporters and columnists were reportedly not part of the cut. The Journal is part of the Belo chain of Dallas.

Second, the Eagle-Tribune papers north of Boston have cut 21 positions at their four daily newspapers and several related publications, writes the Boston Globe’s Todd Wallack. The dailies are the Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, the Daily News of Newburyport, the Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times. The company is owned by CNHI, based in Montgomery, Ala.

More: Wallack has more on the Eagle-Tribune layoffs.

Meanwhile, E-T reporter Mike McMahon, who covered Merrimack College hockey, writes about getting laid off.

Banyan Project eyes Haverhill for its first news co-op

This article was previously posted at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Ownership matters.

It matters in New Orleans, where Advance Publications is cutting The Times-Picayune’s print edition from seven days a week to three — and gutting the staff —despite earning a profit and paying bonuses in 2010 and 2011.

It matters in Chicago, where Tribune Company — which may soon emerge from bankruptcy — got rid of its hyperlocal reporters at the Chicago Tribune and replaced them with Journatic, which outsources coverage, in some cases to the Philippines, and which until recently used fake bylines on some of its stories. (On Friday, the Tribune suspended its relationship with Journatic after a plagiarism complaint arose.)

And it matters in the Boston area, where GateHouse Media — the national chain that owns more than 100 community newspapers here — is preparing to unveil a centralized in-house content farm whose work could eventually find its way into eastern Massachusetts.

Newspapers, the source of most local journalism, are weighed down by chain ownership and corporate debt. Independent online news sites are a promising alternative. But for-profit sites like The Batavian and Baristanet are too small to provide the full range of community journalism that was typical a generation or two ago. And larger nonprofits like the New Haven Independent and Voice of San Diego are rare, in part because the IRS has put a hold on new ventures.

So what can be done? Later this year, a community news site based on an entirely different ownership model is scheduled to debut in Haverhill, a blue-collar city of 60,000 about 45 minutes north of Boston on the New Hampshire line. The site, to be called Haverhill Matters, will be cooperatively owned, similar to a credit union or a food co-op. Neither for-profit nor nonprofit, the site, if it is to succeed, will depend on the goodwill and support of its members. And it is designed to be easily replicated in other cities and regions.

Haverhill Matters will be the first visible manifestation of the Banyan Project, an idea that veteran journalist Tom Stites has been working on for several years. I recently met Stites, whose long résumé includes editing stints at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, and Mike LaBonte, who chaired the site’s local organizing committee, at a restaurant in Haverhill to discuss their plans. (LaBonte stepped aside a short time later, citing health issues and the pressures of a new job.)

It was something of a reunion. I’d written for Stites several times when he was editor of the UU World, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s denominational magazine. I knew LaBonte through his volunteer work as an editor at NewsTrust, a social network that evaluates journalism for qualities such as fairness and sourcing; he’d led several workshops for my students.

What attracted Stites to the co-op model was his belief that newspaper executives, in their relentless pursuit of high-end advertising, had abandoned all but their most affluent readers. It’s a subject he has spoken and written about passionately, including at the 2006 Media Giraffe conference at UMass Amherst and in a series for the Lab last December.

Banyan sites such as Haverhill Matters are aimed at serving “news deserts,” a term Stites consciously adopted from “food deserts” — that is, lower-income urban neighborhoods where grocery stores are scarce and fast food restaurants proliferate. The idea is that a lack of fresh, relevant news can be as harmful to civic health as a lack of fresh, nutritious food can be to personal health.

That all sounds good, but where will the money come from? Stites said that Banyan sites would be supported through a combination of membership fees, grant money, and advertising. I told him that sounded exactly the same as the model used by nonprofit sites such as the New Haven Independent. Stites responded by emphasizing the benefits of membership in a co-op.

So let me draw a few comparisons between the Banyan model and the Independent. Stites hopes to sign up some 1,200 people who would pay $36 a year, bringing in a little more than $43,000 annually. The Independent asks for readers to pay $10 to $18 a month voluntarily; editor and founder Paul Bass told me he’s got about 100 voluntary subscribers paying a total of about $13,000 a year, which comes to less than 3 percent of his site’s $450,000 annual budget. Given that the Independent has been around for nearly seven years and serves a city twice the size of Haverhill, Stites’ goal is ambitious indeed. But there are differences in terms of the incentives.

Banyan sites such as Haverhill Matters would be free, as is the Independent. But in order to participate on the Haverhill site using community tools that Stites promises will be unusually sophisticated, readers will be asked to pay — a request that would become a requirement after several months. The Independent, by contrast, does not assess any mandatory charges. In keeping with the cooperative model, paid-up Banyan members will elect a board, which will in turn select the full-time editor. Readers will also be able to become members by contributing labor rather than time — perhaps by writing a neighborhood blog that appears on the site. If it works, in other words, a Banyan site would foster a sense of ownership and participation that other models lack.

“This is different from a hyperlocal news site,” Stites told me. “This is a community institution owned by a widely distributed, large number of community members. It has to be owned by members of the community, and they’ve got to support or it doesn’t happen.”

The next few months will be crucial ones. Currently, Stites is trying to raise money for the launch with a pitch at Spot.us. He and the organizing committee are planning a community meeting in Haverhill this September. And if all goes according to plan, Haverhill Matters will go live by the end of the year.

Stites is planning to launch Haverhill Matters with two paid staff members: a full-time, professional editor with roots in the city and a “general manager” whose job would be to build a community around the site and to write. Beyond that, his ideas for covering the news are evolving. Journalism students from nearby Northern Essex Community College would be involved. High school interns might be put to work assembling a community calendar. In our conversation, it came across as amorphous but potentially interesting — worth watching, but with compelling, useful journalism by no means assured.

Strictly speaking, Haverhill is not entirely a news desert, but it comes pretty close. The nearest daily, The Eagle-Tribune, is based in North Andover and owned by CNHI, a national chain based in Montgomery, Alabama. The paper publishes a daily Haverhill edition and a weekly, The Haverhill Gazette. But LaBonte told me that both were a far cry from the days when the Gazette was an independently owned daily paper.

“That was a thriving daily at one point,” LaBonte said. “What I’m hearing from an awful lot of new people is, how do I find out what is going on in Haverhill?”

By early 2013, one of the answers to that question might be a start-up website called Haverhill Matters.

Alabama chain whacks local papers — again

The Alabama state employees’ pension fund is taking the axe to its newspapers on the North Shore and in the Merrimack Valley — again.

CNHI, the Birmingham, Ala.-based chain that owns four daily newspapers and four weeklies north of Boston, has eliminated 36 full- and part-time jobs. The dailies affected by the layoffs are the Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, the Daily News of Newburyport, the Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times. The chain whacked 52 jobs in 2008.

“We have done our best to weather economic difficulties, but like many companies we must take further steps to sustain the long-term success of the company by reducing staffing levels again,” a CNHI publisher, Al Getler, said in a statement posted online.

But it’s not all bad news for CNHI — if you’re fortunate enough to be near the seat of power. The company recently announced that it would move to Alabama’s state capital, Montgomery, and take up residence in a 12-story building being constructed by its chief investor, Retirement Systems of Alabama. The move is expected to take place in 2012.

We subscribe to the Salem News, and we continue to be impressed with the good job done by the reporters, photographers and editors every day. (Disclosure: Mrs. Media Nation was a Salem News photographer until eight years ago.)

But working conditions have been pretty difficult. For the past several years, most employees have had to take roughly a week of unpaid furlough every quarter. And now things have gotten considerably worse.

No doubt management is having a difficult time of it. The Salem News is pretty light on ads most days. But hollowing out the product year by year is a recipe for eventual closure, not revival. If there is a vision beyond continued cutting, it’s certainly not apparent to readers — or to the journalists who still work there.

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery.

For Amorello, a sad and ugly ending

Both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald give the front-page treatment today to former Big Dig chief Matt Amorello. Each paper also features those horrendous mug shots of Amorello, barely conscious, being held by a police officer so that his picture could be taken.

There’s a case to be made that the photos shouldn’t have been published, but I’m not going to make it here. I suspect that any impulse to hold back disappeared when Amorello himself disappeared. He later turned up at UMass Medical Center.

The two dailies offer some details (here and here) on Amorello’s slide following his forced resignation in 2006, after a woman was killed when a concrete slab fell from a Big Dig tunnel onto her car. You will find nothing surprising in either story.

The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, whose coverage area includes Haverhill, where Amorello was arrested, sticks to what’s in the police report, as well as the observations of a few witnesses. “I’m just glad nobody got hurt,” Leonor Santos tells the paper. “We’re angry about him being drunk and driving. But thank God he’s OK. I’d rather he hit my car than the pole.”

Amorello easily could have killed someone. WBZ television and radio analyst Jon Keller writes that Amorello deserves compassion, but not forgiveness. I agree.

Hard times continue at CNHI

The pain keeps on coming at CNHI, a Birmingham, Ala.-based newspaper chain that owns four Massachusetts dailies: the Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, the Daily News of Newburyport, the Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times.

On the heels of a holiday furlough several months ago, Yvette Northcutt, the company’s vice president of human resources, is now telling employees they must take five unpaid days off between April 1 and June 30.

CNHI, as you may know, exists mainly to provide Alabama schoolteachers with a comfortable retirement. Those of us who live on the North Shore or the Merrimack Valley can ponder that the next time we wonder why an important local event didn’t get covered.

The full text of Northcutt’s memo follows:

We have chosen to implement reduced work schedules for hourly employees and reduced work schedules and pay reductions for salaried employees in the second quarter of 2010. The details are described below:

  • We will implement a reduced work schedule for hourly employees during the second quarter of 2010. All hourly employees must take five days off without pay between April 1, 2010 and June 30, 2010. It is expected that no work will be done during this time. This applies to full and part-time employees. Part-time employees’ work schedules will be reduced on a prorated basis. These days must be taken during the second quarter, and regular vacation, personal and sick days may not be substituted for these unpaid days.
  • A reduced schedule will also be implemented for salaried employees during the second quarter with a corresponding reduction in pay. Salaried employees already affected by the first-quarter pay reduction will simply see their current base salary roll forward. The second-quarter pay reduction will be applied over all pay dates occurring during the second quarter. In turn, salaried employees must take five days off between April 1, 2010 and June 30, 2010. Under this plan, the days off will not reduce the employees’ existing allotment of regular vacation, personal and sick days. Regular vacation, personal and sick days may not be substituted for these additional days off.
  • We are asking our unions to voluntarily agree to similar arrangements for the employees they represent. If our unions agree, this will help us avoid future layoffs.
  • In order to ensure staffing needs are met, these off days must be planned and approved in advance. Please submit the attached Request for Second Quarter Days Off form to your manager by March 15, 2010.

Thank you again for your hard work, dedication and support. Please contact Human Resources if you have any questions.