The “What Works” podcast is back! Ellen Clegg and I took some time off to finish our book, which now has a name — “What Works in Community News: Media Startups, News Deserts, and the Future of the Fourth Estate.” Barring any unexpected roadblocks, it will be published by Beacon Press in early 2024.
Our latest podcast features Mike Blinder, the publisher of Editor & Publisher, the once and future bible of the news publishing industry. Mike also hosts E&P’s weekly vodcast/podcast series, “E&P Reports” which has established itself as a must-listen for anyone interested in the state of the news business. Blinder has interviewed everyone from Richard Tofel, founding GM of ProPublica, to Jennifer Kho, the new executive editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, to professor and media critic Jeff Jarvis. Blinder probes important issues like government support for community journalism, the role of social-media platforms and the impact of chain consolidation.
I’ve got a Quick Take on the failure of two bills in Congress that would have provided some government support to newspaper companies. It’s fair to say that the federal government is not going to be riding to the rescue of local news, and that communities had better get about the business of providing coverage on their own.
Ellen reports on the City Paper in Pittsburgh, an alternative weekly, which has just been acquired by a subsidiary of Block Communications. The Block family has achieved some notoriety for its mismanagement of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Media observer Margaret Sullivan called the Post-Gazette a tragic mess under the Blocks.
I was looking at my WordPress statistics for 2022, and one number really leaped out at me. Twitter was the third-largest source of traffic to Media Nation in 2022. Search engines were responsible for 70,626 views, Facebook was second at 27,126, and Twitter was right behind at 25,371.
As you probably know, I’ve stopped using Twitter. But it shows you why walking away is pretty close to impossible for self-employed journalists and marginal operators who can’t afford to spurn any service that drives traffic to their site. Although I have a voluntary membership program for $5 a month (please consider!), my livelihood is not dependent on Media Nation.
Search, Facebook and Twitter were the big three, followed by LinkedIn at 4,047 and, in fifth place, an unexpected source: Editor & Publisher, the news industry trade publication, at 3,827. E&P has been kind enough to feature my posts in its daily newsletter on a fairly regular basis, so I guess that’s the explanation. Other notable entries in the top 10 were Universal Hub and Expecting Rain, a site for fans of Bob Dylan, who I’ve been known to write about from time to time. From there it quickly dribbles down to double and single digits.
I’ve taken most of my Twitter-like posts to Mastodon, so I was curious to see that there was nothing. The explanation, I found out, is that Mastodon contains code that makes referrals invisible, which is supposedly some sort of privacy protection. I don’t quite get it, and I’ve learned about a workaround that will supposedly make Mastodon referrals show up. I am getting some referrals from Post News, which, like Mastodon, is emerging as a leading Twitter replacement.
The news media trade publication Editor & Publisher has republished a letter to readers from Chris Quinn, the editor of Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, about press restrictions imposed by supporters of Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance. Quinn’s letter originally appeared Aug. 20, but with the campaign for the midterm elections down to their final days, it’s well worth pondering what Quinn had to say two months ago. Kudos to E&P for reminding us.
Quinn told his readers that reporters from his news organization did not attend a Vance rally featuring Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis because they could not abide by the rules that were imposed. Quinn wrote:
The worst of the rules was one prohibiting reporters from interviewing attendees not first approved by the organizers of the event for DeSantis and Vance. When we cover events, we talk to anyone we wish. It’s America, after all, the land of free speech. At least that’s America as it exists today. Maybe not the America that would exist under DeSantis and Vance.
Other beyond-the-pale rules were that any news video shot at the event would have to be shared with the organizers for promotional use; that the organizers had the right to know how any footage would be used; and that reporters could not enter the hotel rooms of anyone at the event, even if invited in for an interview. Quinn also had this to say:
Think about what they were doing here. They were staging an event to rally people to vote for Vance while instituting the kinds of policies you’d see in a fascist regime. A wannabe U.S. Senator, and maybe a wannabe president.
The event was organized by Turning Point Action, a nonprofit associated with Donald Trump. But as Quinn rightly observed, it was essentially a Vance rally, and if he had any problems with the restrictions placed on journalists, he was notably silent about it.
Quinn concluded: “I should note that I’m writing this before the event occurred, so if something changed at the last minute, this piece would omit it.” But Turning Point did not back down, according to a piece that Jon Allsop wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review several days later. As Allsop put it:
The Turning Point rules may have been eye-catchingly baroque, but they form part of a much broader pattern of restrictions on mainstream-media access to candidates and events — a long-standing bane of political journalism that has significantly intensified on the GOP side of the aisle in the Trump era.
So here we are, on the brink of one and possibly both branches of Congress flipping back to Republican rule. There’s really no way for journalists to fight it except to refuse, and f that means giving Republican candidates less coverage, so be it. Meanwhile, the dividing of America into two camps, one small-“d” democratic and the other authoritarian — or fascist, as Quinn put it — continues apace.
The vodcast, hosted by E&P publisher Mike Blinder, featured the Globe’s Rhode Island editor (and my “Beat the Press” crony), Lylah Alphonse; Rhode Island reporter Dan McGowan; and Michelle Micone, the Globe’s vice president for innovation and strategic initiatives.
It was Micone who talked about expanding the Globe’s coverage to other regions. She specifically mentioned New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont but not Connecticut, which was either inadvertent or, more likely, a nod to the Nutmeg State’s very different media and cultural environment. I mean, my God, they root for the Yankees down there.
Alphonse and McGowan were careful not to criticize The Providence Journal, but let’s face it — the Globe’s Rhode Island project was begun in response to Gannett’s evisceration of that once great paper. Blinder said that the Journal’s full-time staff is down to about 14. [Note: The actual number is about 30.] Alphonse told me that Globe Rhode Island now has eight full-time journalists. Of course, the folks who remain at the Journal are doing good work under trying conditions, and Alphonse and McGowan were smart to acknowledge that.
One statistic that really hit me was that McGowan’s daily newsletter, “Rhode Map,” is sent to 80,000 recipients each morning, with an open rate of about 30%. By contrast, the Journal’s combined paid print and digital circulation on weekdays, according to data the paper filed with the Alliance for Audited Media, is a little under 31,000. (About 24,000 of that is print, showing that Gannett’s push on digital subscriptions has a long way to go.)
I also want to highlight the news that staff reporter Alexa Gagosz, one of our great master’s degree alums at Northeastern, is heading up expanded food and dining coverage in Rhode Island, including a weekly newsletter.
Now, to get back to possible expansion in other regions: Rhode Island was an opportunity that may not be entirely replicable elsewhere, thanks not only to the ProJo’s shrinkage but to the state’s unique identity. The state has a range of media options, including good-quality public radio, television newscasts and independent community news outlets. But the ProJo’s decline gave the Globe a chance to slide in and quickly establish itself as one of the players.
Where else does opportunity that exist? Worcester and Central Massachusetts strike me as in serious need of more journalism. The Globe memorably walked away from the region when then-new owner John Henry sold the Telegram & Gazette to a Florida-based chain after leading the staff to believe he was committed to selling to local interests. Soon enough, the T&G became part of Gannett, and it was subjected to the same devastating cuts that the chain has imposed throughout the country. The T&G carried on but is currently in flux, having lost its respected executive editor, Dave Nordman, to Northeastern, where he’s heading up the internal news operation. Could the Henrys return to Worcester? I’ve heard that might be within the range of possibilities.
But where else? New Hampshire and Maine both have good-quality independent newspapers, though New Hampshire’s two leading papers — the Union Leader and the Concord Monitor — have shrunk quite a bit. Vermont is unique, dominated by one of the most respected nonprofit news organizations in the country, VTDigger.
Then there’s the distribution model, which, if they were asking me (they’re not), is too reliant on print. Quite a bit of the Globe’s Rhode Island coverage appears in the Globe’s print edition. But rather than take on the cost of trucking more papers to Rhode Island, why not use digital to expand your reach and drive more digital subscriptions? What the Globe is doing with Rhode Island and print simply wouldn’t work if the paper established bureaus in Central Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont.
The Globe is one of the few major metropolitan dailies in the country that is growing. What it’s doing in Rhode Island is impressive, and I’d love to see it happen elsewhere.
Correction: After this item was published, I learned that the Journal’s full-time newsroom staff is actually around 30 people, supplemented by freelancers.