What local news outlets can do to overcome suspicion on the right

Photo (cc) 2008 by TimothyJ

Previously published at GBH News.

Recently I had a conversation with a hyperlocal news editor who wanted to talk through a dilemma. Her website, which covers such matters as town boards, schools, housing, public health and charity events, is resolutely nonpartisan. From the beginning, her goal has been to bring together people from varied backgrounds and with different political beliefs. Yet her sense was that most of her readers, like her, were liberal. What could she do to reach out to conservatives?

Her dilemma is not unique. Surveys show that people trust local and regional news more than they do the national media. Ideally, local news can help overcome the hyperpolarization that is tearing us apart at the national level and foster a spirit of community and cooperation.

Increasingly, though, the divisions that define national life are inescapable. Our school systems are rippling with rage over masks, vaccines and how kids are taught about racial justice. Discussions about policing have devolved into binary sloganeering about defunding the police or backing the blue.

And well-meaning journalists, mostly liberal but wanting to give a voice to everyone, wring their hands.

Last week, the research project Trusting News, a joint venture of the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute, released a report on how local and regional news organizations can do a better job of connecting with conservative audiences. More than 3,400 self-identified conservatives responded to a survey, and 91 of them were interviewed by 27 media outlets around the country. (In New England, the participants were New Hampshire Public Radio, Vermont’s Burlington Free Press and The Day of New London, Connecticut.)

The report, written by Marley Duchovnay, a research associate at the University of Texas’ Center for Media Engagement, and Gina M. Masullo, associate director of the center, makes six recommendations. Three of them are of particular interest:

  • “Build relationships with people who have conservative and right-leaning viewpoints in your community and listen to them.”
  • “Include a variety of voices from people with conservative and right-leaning views in stories. Journalists should be cautious of using ‘conservative’ or other terms as catch-all labels for people who may have very different beliefs.”
  • “Consider diversity of political beliefs and backgrounds when hiring for the newsroom.”

The first two bullet points are just good journalism: get to know your community, and don’t assume everyone on the right drives “a pickup truck with the Confederate flag on the back,” as Masullo put it at a webinar held last week to explain the findings. The third, though, is potentially problematic. News organizations don’t ask job candidates about their political views, nor should they. So how do we go about ensuring ideological diversity in the newsroom?

“I think more the idea is to, in your recruitment strategy, try to hit rural areas, more conservative areas,” said Masullo. And yes, that seems fine in theory. But with the journalism economy continuing to shrink, hiring is not an everyday occurrence — and the need to hire people of color to diversify overwhelmingly white newsrooms has to be a top priority.

I was also struck by another finding in the report — that material from wire services in local media outlets contributes to perceptions of liberal bias more than the local content does. At the webinar, the presenters cited Mark Rosenberg of the Victoria Advocate in Texas, who told them: “National news drives distrust in the media far more than local news, it was surprising and frustrating to hear. 95% of what I do is local, but the syndicated copy and columns is what is driving distrust. That is something that recurred in all three interviews that I did.”

To invoke the old cliché, this presents both a challenge and an opportunity. For daily newspapers like the Advocate, which have positioned themselves as a single source for community, national and international news, it’s difficult to imagine how that problem could be solved — especially when some of the respondents complained even about The Associated Press, known for its lack of bias.

Most weekly papers and hyperlocal websites, though, focus exclusively on their community, which means that they avoid offending conservatives who don’t want to see national and international news that has what they consider to be a liberal slant.

One approach that even the editors and publishers of daily papers could consider is thinking about how they can de-emphasize national news, including syndicated columns, in their opinion sections. Earlier this week my research partner, Ellen Clegg, interviewed Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University about a study he conducted along with two other scholars. The study attempted to show what happened when the Desert Sun of Palm Beach, California, dropped national opinion content for a month and went exclusively local. The result was a slight but measurable decline in polarization.

“The experiment is not without controversy,” Clegg writes. “The Trump-Biden presidential race and the COVID pandemic arguably showed how much local election laws, local public health policies and local governments matter in setting the course of the nation’s future. Abandoning coverage entirely — and opinion page columns do constitute a form of coverage all their own — could seem irresponsible to some.”

Still, for many daily newspaper editors, running syndicated material in the opinion section isn’t a way to serve readers so much as it is an aversion to new ways of doing things. More local opinion journalism, combined with some national content from the left and the right, would seem like a good mix.

A crucial concern that isn’t really addressed in the report but that did come up at the webinar is the importance of not pandering to people with right-wing views. Though the goal of broadening the conversation and bringing more voices into the tent is a laudable one, we can’t forget that it’s conservatives — radicals, really — who have gone off the rails, embracing lies about the outcome of the last election, the Jan. 6 insurrection, vaccinations, mask-wearing and such. Trusting News director Joy Mayer, though, told the participants that the very nature of the study tended to weed such people out.

“The people who self-selected into this research were not the people with the most extreme views and the most extreme distrust,” Mayer said. “If you are willing to spend an hour sitting and talking to a local journalist, you have to believe that they want to change. You have to believe they’re worth an investment of your time. The whole world is not made up of people who would be grateful for an hour to spend with a journalist.”

If journalists who run local news projects want to serve everyone in their community, and not just the more liberal elements, then the fundamental ideas outlined in the report are worth paying attention to: listen; be fair; don’t resort to cheap labels in describing those with different views.

I don’t know if it can help. But getting past the divisions that are ripping us apart is perhaps the most vital challenge facing us today. If there is to be solution, it’s got to start at the local level.

Can community journalism be saved?

Ellen Clegg and I talked with Hillary Chabot of News at Northeastern about our book project, tentatively titled “What Works: The Future of Local News.”

Can independent local news succeed? It already is. And we’re going to tell that story.

Photo (cc) 2015 by Dave Wilson

A big announcement from Ellen Clegg and me: We are working on a book about successful community journalism projects across the country. The tentative title: “What Works: The Future of Local News.” Today we outline our plans for the Nieman Journalism Lab.

This hasn’t been a secret. We actually started our reporting more than a year ago but had to hit pause when the pandemic came. Now we’re starting up again. And I’m really excited to be working with a pro like Ellen. Much, much more to come.

The book is scheduled to be published by Beacon Press in the second half of 2023.

Could the Globe do more to fill the local news gap?

The Globe’s YourTown site for Needham circa 2010

Last Thursday we had a terrific panel discussion at Northeastern’s School of Journalism about the local news crisis in Greater Boston. Our panelists were state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, the lead sponsor of a state commission on local news that was recently created; retired Boston Globe editorial page editor Ellen Clegg; Yawu Miller, senior editor of The Bay State Banner; Bill Forry, managing editor of The Dorchester Reporter; and Julie McCay Turner, co-founder and managing editor of The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit website that started as a volunteer project and that has gradually added paid journalism.

You can read Mihiro Shimano’s account at The Scope by clicking here. But I want to pick up on something that Ellen (my research partner on a book about local news) said about The Boston Globe’s role.

I was moderating and couldn’t take notes. But when I asked her about the Globe’s role in local news, she said the paper discovered about 20 years ago that it couldn’t make much of a dent at the hyperlocal level. Readers looked to their community weeklies and dailies for coverage of day-to-day life in their cities and towns. What the Globe could provide, she said, was regional coverage of issues that affected everyone — which is pretty much the mission statement for the paper in general.

As she also pointed out, the Globe now has a digital Rhode Island section, which is in keeping with the regional focus, and covers Newton through a partnership with Boston University. But could the paper do more?

Now that corporate-owned chains have decimated most of the once-strong community papers that circle Boston, I wonder if the Globe might be able to play more of a role. One idea would be to revive the YourTown websites that were unveiled during the last few years of New York Times Co. ownership. YourTown covered not just the Boston suburbs but neighborhoods within the city as well, which remains a crucial need. That was back in the days of the free web, and it proved impossible to sell ads for the sites. Now that everything is subscription-driven, though, would it be possible to try again?

There’s no substitute for independently owned community media, but a greater presence by the Globe — which itself is independently owned — might be the next best thing.

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The Boston Globe makes an unconventional hire to run its opinion pages

Bina Venkataraman (via LinkedIn)

The Boston Globe’s next editorial-page editor, Bina Venkataraman, is an unconventional hire for some interesting reasons. She’s young (39), a person of color, an outsider (notwithstanding a brief stint at the Globe some years ago), an academic associated with MIT and Harvard, and a woman (as were her two predecessors, though it’s still unusual enough to be worth noting).

More than anything, though, her intellectual orientation is very different from the politics-and-powerbrokers style that is typical of editorial-page editors generally. She’s a science journalist who’s worked for The New York Times. She was also a senior adviser for climate-change innovation in the Obama administration and is the author of a new book, “The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age.”

This is an enormously important hire. The editorial-page editor, like editor Brian McGrory, reports directly to publisher John Henry and managing director Linda Henry. I’d be very surprised if Linda Henry, in particular, was not a driving force in bringing Venkataraman back to the Globe.

Opinion journalism is everywhere these days, though much of it can’t really be considered journalism. In an interview with the Globe, Venkataraman showed that she gets it, saying, “There are a lot of opinions in our media environment right now, and a lot of people are able to offer their opinions, so it raises the bar for what we produce.”

Venkataraman’s predecessor, Ellen Clegg, who retired a little more than a year ago (disclosure: we are research partners on a project we’re not ready to announce), oversaw a vibrant redesign of the print pages, innovative and controversial projects on gun violence and a fake front page about a possible Trump presidency, and the expansion of digital-only content. After Clegg left, business columnist Shirley Leung filled in for a few months as interim editorial-page editor but didn’t really have time to leave her mark.

I would expect to see Venkataraman lead the Globe opinion pages in a more science-based direction, especially with regard to solutions-oriented journalism about climate change. I’d also like to see further expansion of digital-only content — two print pages with lots of white space really isn’t enough.

One big question is the future of the Ideas section, which will be part of Venkataraman’s portfolio. Earlier this year a sharp-eyed observer found a job ad suggesting that the Globe was going to morph it into more of a traditional Sunday week-in-review section — perhaps similar to the old Focus section that Ideas replaced, though it would need considerable updating.

Whether Ideas stays or goes, I think it needs to be made more relevant and rooted in the news. As it stands, many of the pieces strike me as too obscure. That may be a reflection of my own pedestrian tastes, although I don’t think I’m alone in that assessment. We’ll see what Venkataraman does.

Venkataraman begins in November. You can find out more about her in this online bio.

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Shirley Leung to resume her column as Globe seeks editorial page editor

Shirley Leung (via LinkedIn)

Looks like some big changes are coming to The Boston Globe’s opinion pages. On Friday, a friend of Media Nation pointed me to this ad on Indeed.com for an editorial page editor. I made an inquiry and learned that, sure enough, interim editorial page editor Shirley Leung will be returning to the newsroom, where she’ll resume writing her column for the business section.

Leung was named interim after Ellen Clegg retired last summer. Leung emailed me a statement this morning:

It was announced internally to the staff on April 8 that I am returning to my column, which I miss dearly. I’ve learned a lot on the editorial page, and I’ve been grateful for the opportunity — and I got to see my name on the masthead! A national search is underway. We are currently working on a date for my return to the newsroom.

And there’s more interesting information in the listing: “The Editorial Page Editor role will provide leadership (and influence final design) for the Sunday Review, and the Op Ed sections, in addition to being a member of the Editorial Board.”

The Globe does not currently have a Sunday Review section. It does have an Ideas section, but there’s no mention of it in the ad. Lest you think I’m reading too much into that, I have heard anecdotally in recent weeks that the Globe’s owners, John and Linda Henry, have been contemplating a Sunday opinion section that would be more newsy and less esoteric than Ideas, which dates back to the early years of the Marty Baron era.

Ideas replaced Focus, which was, in fact, a Sunday week-in-review section.

Leung recently got caught up in a controversy over a column by freelance contributor Luke O’Neil, which, she told WGBH News’ “Boston Public Radio,” was published online without sufficient oversight. O’Neil wrote that one of his “biggest regrets” was “not pissing in Bill Kristol’s salmon” during his days as a waiter. The column was revised twice before being taken down at what Leung said was the Henrys’ insistence. There have been no indications that there was any lasting fallout for Leung over that episode or that her stepping aside is related to it, but that hasn’t stopped her critics on Twitter from speculating to that effect.

As a business columnist, Leung was a provocateur, taking contrary stands on issues such as the Boston Olympics (she was for it, with reservations) and on the Demoulas family controversy (she was sympathetic to Arthur S. Demoulas in the battle over the future of Market Basket in the face of a public outcry on behalf of his cousin Arthur T. Demoulas).

I often disagreed with her, but I’ve missed her voice. This strikes me as a good move.

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Some thoughts on The Boston Globe’s Shirley Leung appointment

Shirley Leung via LinkedIn

The choice of Shirley Leung to run The Boston Globe’s editorial pages on an interim basis is an interesting one. The paper’s top two editors — the editorial-page editor and the editor of everything else — have traditionally held fairly low-profile positions before their appointment, at least in terms of their public profile. But Leung, a business columnist (and former business editor), is one of the Globe’s most high-profile personalities.

In that respect, the choice of Leung resembles the elevation of Brian McGrory to the top of the masthead in 2012. Unlike his predecessors, McGrory wrote a widely read metro column. At a time when newspapers can hardly afford to give up features that draw readers, that was a significant loss. Likewise, Leung’s column will be missed unless the Globe is able to find a suitable replacement. We can all hope that Leung finds the time to write under her own byline at least occasionally, but that’s going to be tough.

As a columnist, Leung is a provocateur who seems to enjoy taking controversial stands — most notably, advocating for the Olympics to come to town. There’s nothing wrong with an editorial-page editor who likes to think counterintuitively. But she’s now going to have to express her opinions as part of a team that includes the editorial board as well as owners John and Linda Henry.

Leung’s predecessor, Ellen Clegg, who retired last week, served a long time as the interim before finally being named to the job. Clegg led the pages through some significant accomplishments: a redesign of the print section that allowed her to cut the number of unsigned editorials from the traditional three per day to (usually) one; innovative editorial projects on gun violence and other topics; new voices such as Michael Cohen, Renée Graham, Niall Ferguson and Richard North Patterson; and an uptick in web-only content. Leung has large shoes to fill, but my guess is that she’s being groomed as the permanent replacement once her six-month interim stint is up. (Disclosure.)

It’s also interesting that Leung’s appointment comes just after deputy editorial-page editor Marjorie Pritchard led a nationwide campaign to persuade newspapers to editorialize against President Trump’s anti-press rhetoric. Ultimately more than 400 papers signed on. Which means that Leung will be even more closely watched than might have otherwise been the case.

Best wishes to Shirley. The full text of the Globe’s press release is below.

SHIRLEY LEUNG NAMED INTERIM EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR

August 20, 2018, The Boston Globe Boston, MA – The Boston Globe announced today that starting August 27th, Shirley Leung will assume leadership for the Editorial Board for the next six months and will be named the interim Editorial Page Editor.

Leung has been a bold voice in Boston. For the past five years, she wrote an impactful, must-read, often counterintuitive column in The Globe’s business section. Prior to that, Leung served as The Globe’s business editor overseeing coverage of the Great Recession. Her experience brings a deep understanding of the business community and connection to the newsroom that will help lead transformation across the organization. Leung will be the fifth woman in The Globe’s 142-year history to hold this position, and the first person of color to do so.

In naming Leung, Linda Henry, The Globe’s Managing Director, said “We need the strength of a courageous thinker, someone who knows both the newsroom and the world of opinion well, and who knows how to challenge assumptions, and while I am reluctant to lose her column, I could not be more excited about this new role for her. “ Henry added, “I am proud of the board’s progress and bold initiatives, and look forward to the board becoming an even more vibrant voice serving our community locally and nationally.  We want to make certain that we take our time to think strategically about the board, who the next permanent leader will be, and how it will be organized.”

Prior to the Globe, Leung spent six years at the Wall Street Journal. A graduate of Princeton University, Leung started her career at her hometown paper, The Baltimore Sun.

“The Globe’s editorial board last week spoke loudly and with purpose with its #FreePress initiative driving a national conversation on the role of journalism,“ said Leung. “I am proud and humbled to take on this new post and have my voice join theirs.”

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A project that Ellen Clegg and I will be working on

Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal reports that Boston Globe editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg has announced her retirement, and he notes that sports editor Joe Sullivan recently said he would retire as well.

I suspect the sports section will be just fine. Clegg’s shoes, on the other hand, may prove to be difficult to fill. A longtime Globe employee, Clegg followed Peter Canellos, an exceptionally thoughtful editor who took a top job at Politico after leaving the Globe several years ago. Clegg proved to be an innovator both online and in print. More important, she has a close working relationship with owners John and Linda Henry, which has really mattered given the Henrys’ ongoing interest in the editorial pages. You’ll find a synopsis of those innovations in an interview I did with Clegg for the Nieman Journalism Lab earlier this year.

And now for some personal news. For the past several months Clegg and I have been talking about working together on a project, probably a textbook about opinion journalism. I’ve known for a while that she was retiring — the project is not something I could take on if she’d stayed at the Globe given the conflict of interest with my work at “Beat the Press” and WGBH News. So I’m glad Clegg’s departure is finally out in the open.

Although we’ve sketched out a few ideas, we are a long way from producing anything. She’s not leaving the Globe until mid-August. I just wanted to let you know that Ellen and I will be working together before you heard it from anyone else.

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At The Boston Globe, the editorial pages are looking for new ways to engage readers

Photo (cc) 2017 by Domenico Bettinelli.

For the past two years, The Boston Globe’s opinion pages have published new year’s resolutions in the first Sunday edition of January. This year’s, headlined “We Resolve: What Readers Can Expect from the Globe’s Editorial Pages in 2018,” outlines an eclectic agenda, from keeping a close eye on Google and Facebook, to pushing for transportation improvements, to addressing racism “in all its forms.”

The editorial struck me as of a piece with other innovative moves by the Globe’s opinion section — including an interactive editorial on gun violence, a parody front page of what a Donald Trump presidency would look like, and expanded digital content.  I asked the Globe’s editorial-page editor, Ellen Clegg, where the idea for editorial-page new year’s resolutions came from and what she hopes it will accomplish. Our lightly edited email exchange appears at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Read my interview with Clegg at the Nieman Lab. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Cartoon in Globe about police shootings sparks controversy

Mike Luckovich's cartoon as it appeared in Monday's Boston Globe. Photo by WGBH News.
Mike Luckovich’s cartoon as it appeared in Monday’s Boston Globe. Photo by WGBH News.

Update: The Globe has published a collection of letters in opposition to the cartoon.

Officials with the Boston Police Department are upset over a tough cartoon about police shootings of black men that appeared on the opinion pages of Monday’s Boston Globe. But the Globe’s editorial-page editor is standing by it. And the president of the local NAACP defends the cartoon as a satirical comment on a tragic reality.

The cartoon, by Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose work is nationally syndicated, depicts a white police officer. In one frame, labeled “For White People,” he is seen holding a piece of paper that says “Miranda Rights.” In the other, “For Black People,” a piece of paper says “Last Rites.”

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org.