Houston becomes the latest city to announce a nonprofit news project

Downtown Houston. Photo (cc) 2018 by David Daniel Turner.

Big news out of Houston, where several major philanthropies have announced they intend to raise $20 million to start a nonprofit news project — just the latest major metropolitan area to embrace nonprofit journalism.

What makes it a bit unusual is that the Houston Chronicle, the legacy daily, is owned by Hearst, generally regarded as one of the better newspapers chains. Of course, all corporate chains are problematic, but Houston is not like Baltimore, where hotel magnate Stewart Bainum is launching the nonprofit The Baltimore Banner after losing out to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital in his bid to buy The Baltimore Sun.

The Houston effort is being led by the American Journalism Project, whose chief executive, Sarabeth Berman, told the Columbia Journalism Review:

Local news is a public service — one that’s been in sharp decline. This project demonstrates that local philanthropies can, and need to, play a transformative role in rebuilding and sustaining independent, original reporting in service of communities.

Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

With an anticipated launch in late 2022 or early 2023 on multiple platforms, the new nonprofit news organization will elevate the voices of Houstonians and address the needs of the community as identified in the American Journalism Project’s extensive research. Its wide-ranging coverage will be available for free to readers as well as other news organizations.

I wish them well, of course. Still, it’s hard not to wonder if the money could go to better use elsewhere. Greater Houston residents already get first-rate coverage of state politics and public policy through The Texas Tribune, which is also a nonprofit, and the Chronicle is presumably doing a better job than your typical Alden or Gannett paper.

Click here to read the full press release.

Most Gannett dailies will cut their Saturday print editions

Photo (cc) 2011 by Michael Licht

On Wednesday afternoon a source sent me a memo from four top Gannett executives announcing that Saturday print editions will be eliminated at daily papers in 136 of the chain’s markets across the country.

I don’t know why they didn’t just say “136 dailies,” but maybe there’s a nuance that I’m missing. It sounds like the edict will pertain to pretty much all of Gannett’s  dailies except for a few of the larger ones (I hear that The Providence Journal and the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester will be exempted) and those that already have just one weekend edition (like The Patriot Ledger of Quincy).

Among the local papers that will be affected, Adam Gaffin notes at Universal Hub, are the MetroWest Daily News of Framingham and the Milford Daily News. Also affected, according to announcements I found, are The Standard-Times of New Bedford, The Herald News of Fall River and the Cape Cod Times. But obviously there are many, many more.

Amusingly enough, the memo refers to this as “a new Saturday experience.”

Now, I’m a frequent critic of Gannett, but this doesn’t strike me as a terrible move — even though the price of a subscription is not being cut. The dailies already offer an e-edition that looks like print, and that will continue on Saturdays. The move cuts costs on a day when advertising is minimal. It seems likely that, eventually, all dailies, not just Gannett’s, will offer one big print edition on the weekends and go digital-only the rest of the week. This is an incremental step in that direction.

The problem, needless to say, is that Gannett has a record of cutting for the sole purpose of cutting — laying off journalists and shutting down smaller weeklies in order to bolster its bottom line and pay down its debt. The salaries it pays its reporters are a disgrace. Take, for instance, this tweet from Bethany Freudenthal, a veteran reporter for The Newport Daily News in Rhode Island, whose weekly take-home pay is just under $400 a week.

Given all that, it’s hard to credit Gannett’s elimination of Saturday print as a forward-looking move — even though it may turn out to be exactly that.

The memo, by the way, is a model of corporate-speak. Here it is in full.

Dear team,

As we kick off the new year energized with a keen focus on our North Stars, we are working collaboratively to enable our growth and further accelerate our digital strategy by evolving the print delivery experience.

To make bold progress toward our goal of 10 million digital subscribers requires that we embrace the multi-platform, connected experiences our audiences and customers expect. Our customer-obsessed approach will ensure we remain a vital part of the communities we serve across the country.

As more of our readers engage with our content online, we are introducing a new Saturday experience in 136 of our markets which transitions from delivering the Saturday print edition to providing exclusive access to the full Saturday e-Edition. Committing to our digital future ensures our resources are laser-focused on delivering unlimited access to the premium news, sports, events, and information our loyal subscribers value most. A number of markets will not be included in this transition based on specific market data. Details will be included by local managers in the coming weeks. In addition, we plan to introduce different delivery models in select markets to stimulate further learning and insights as we address the rapidly evolving digital landscape to provide our subscribers with the best experience.

We recognize the importance of Saturday for our advertising clients, and our advertising sales and service teams will be working closely with our customers to provide them with innovative, impactful digital and print options for their Saturday investment. These solutions include high impact and targeted digital display campaigns on our local websites, opportunities within our e-Editions, our industry-leading LOCALiQ digital marketing solutions, as well as alternative print advertising programs.

Our mission is unwavering: to empower communities to thrive by delivering impactful, trusted news coverage and best-in-class marketing solutions for our customers.

Thank you for being part of this team as we work together to serve our customers, execute our digital strategy, and prioritize community-focused journalism in the year (and years) ahead.

— Mayur, Maribel, Kevin & Bernie

Mayur Gupta, Chief Marketing & Strategy Officer
Maribel Perez Wadsworth, President/News at Gannett & Publisher/USA TODAY
Kevin Gentzel, Chief Revenue Officer
Bernie Szachara, President of U.S. Publishing

Ex-paperboys sue Gannett and two of its newspapers over claims of sexual abuse

Photo (cc) 2008 by Thomas Belknap

A former paperboy for the Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, New York, is suing the paper and its corporate owner, Gannett, over sexual abuse he says that he suffered at the hands of a manager back when he was just 11 and 12 years old. Mariya Manzhos has the story at Poynter Online.

The plaintiff, Rick Bates, who’s now 50, says that the company failed to protect him from circulation director Jack Lazeroff and that it acted negligently by hiring him despite previous allegations against him at another job. Lazeroff died in 2003. Manzhos writes that Gannett

is facing lawsuits filed by 11 former paperboys who have accused employees of Gannett-owned newspapers of sexually abusing them on the job in the 1970s and 1980s. [The other paper is the Arizona Republic.]

Nine of the former paperboys filed complaints between 2019 and 2021 against Gannett’s D&C under … a New York law that extended the statute of limitations for survivors of sexual assault, enabling them to file criminal charges against their abusers during a two-year lookback window.

Manzhos describes a culture in which newspaper executives at first attempted to cover up and delay but then published stories that were important to Bates’ ability to advance his case.

She quotes James Marsh, a lawyer for eight of the former paperboys, as saying, “It really was as a result of the journalism that we have so much corollary evidence. We almost never have the quotes, the sources and people that become manifest in our complaints.”

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There they go again

Gannett has shut down another print newspaper — this one the Transcript Tab, itself representing the merger of the Parkway Transcript, which mainly covered Roslindale, and the Allston-Brighton Tab. Adam Gaffin has the details at Universal Hub.

Democratic leaders roll the dice with assistance for local news organizations

Sen. Joe Manchin. Photo (cc) 2017 by Third Way Think Tank.

The Local Journalism Sustainability Act (LJSA), which I’ve written about rather obsessively here, is built upon the foundation of a three-legged stool: a tax write-off for individuals of up to $250 for subscription fees or donations to local news organizations; a tax credit for advertisers in local news outlets; and a payroll tax credit for publishers that hire or retain journalists.

Now the payroll credit has been carved out and added to the Build Back Better bill, which has passed the House and now faces uncertain prospects in the Senate. Marc Tracy reports in The New York Times that the provision would add up to nearly $1.7 billion over the next five years for newspapers, digital operations and broadcast operations.

Tracy notes — rather huffily, if I’m reading him accurately — that large newspapers like the Times would be excluded because they employ more than 1,500 in one location, but giant newspaper chains such as Gannett and those owned by Alden Global Capital would stand to benefit. As I’ve said before, I wish there were a way of restricting the benefits to independent owners; still, this strikes me as worth trying.

What I’m more concerned about is the political wisdom of adding just one part of the LJSA to Build Back Better, which — despite the optimism voiced by President Biden and other Democratic leaders — could be doomed given the seemingly endless demands made by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

There is at least some bipartisan support for the LJSA. Moreover, the tax write-off for subscriptions and donations strikes me as more interesting and creative than simply handing money to publishers for not laying people off. If Build Back Better passes, it will be with just 50 Democratic votes and Vice President Harris breaking the tie — and at that point it seems likely that the other two legs of the stool would disappear. If Build Back Better goes down to defeat, proponents of the LJSA will have to start from scratch.

Even so, the benefits that would be provided by the payroll tax credit are not insignificant. Art Cullen, editor of Iowa’s Storm Lake Times, tells The New York Times that the credit would mean $200,000 in just the first year for his struggling newspaper. “We’d be walking in tall cotton,” he’s quoted as saying. (Ellen Clegg and I spoke with Cullen recently on our podcast, What Works: The Future of Local News.)

Providing government assistance to journalism is fraught with concerns about the First Amendment and the need for an independent press. Yet journalism has always benefited from government help, starting with postal subsidies in the late 1700s. The LJSA is worth trying. I just hope that Democratic leaders haven’t outsmarted themselves by splitting up a bill that stood a decent chance of passing and grafting it onto a large package that they just can’t seem to get done.

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The Cambridge Chronicle lives. But the city still needs a lot more coverage.

News coverage in Cambridge — or the lack thereof — got a lot of attention recently when Joshua Benton wrote in Nieman Lab about the departure of Amy Saltzman as editor of the Cambridge Chronicle-Tab.

What drew national notice was Benton’s warning that maybe Saltzman wouldn’t be replaced and that Gannett would allow it to sink into the ranks of ghost newspapers. Fortunately, that didn’t happen, although Gannett has gone on a spree of shutting down print editions recently. Saltzman’s successor, Will Dowd, introduced himself this week. But Benton’s larger point still holds. Cambridge, a well-educated, affluent city of about 118,000, is covered by just one full-time paid journalist.

Saltzman edited the Chronicle for nine years, which is about 150 years in Corporate Chain Journalism Time. In her farewell column, she writes that she had more resources at her disposal back when she started — in addition to herself, there were one and a half reporting positions, an editorial assistant, a freelance budget, several photographers and an office in nearby Somerville. Four years later, she found herself alone. Yet she adds:

So as I leave my post, I have one plea: Support local journalism. Subscribe to the Chronicle. The paper’s survival as the oldest continuously run weekly newspaper in the country continues to be against all odds and should be lauded.

Well, now. Should Cantabrigians support the Chronicle? My answer would be yes if they’re getting value from it. But I don’t think anyone should feel obliged to support a paper that’s been hollowed out by Gannett and its predecessor company, GateHouse Media, especially when it could almost certainly be run profitably with a bigger staff and a more imaginative approach to the business of journalism. At this point, the closest thing the city has to a news source of record is the Cambridge Day, a mostly volunteer project. It would be nice to see some resources put into the Day, or perhaps into a nonprofit start-up.

Then again, news coverage in Cambridge has always been a puzzle. According to legend, at one time it was the largest city in the country without a daily newspaper, a fact that was usually attributed to its proximity to Boston. Yet neither the Globe nor the Herald ever gave more than cursory coverage to Cambridge. The alt-weeklies — The Boston Phoenix and The Real Paper — actually devoted quite a few resources to Cambridge coverage since that’s where a lot of their readers lived. I remember covering a few Cambridge political stories myself. But those papers are all gone.

When I was a senior in college, a friend of mine who lived in Cambridge and I made serious plans to launch a weekly after we graduated that would compete with the Chronicle, then owned by the Dole family. As we immersed ourselves in the details, though, we discovered that the Chronicle was actually selling its ads at prices well below those listed on its rate card. Realizing we’d be undercut, we got about the business of finding jobs, and that was that.

Later on, Russel Pergament launched the Cambridge Tab, a free paper that was part of a chain of Tab papers in the western suburbs. Pergament sold out to Community Newspaper Co. in 1996, when it was owned by Fidelity Capital. The Chronicle and the Tab were eventually merged.

Which brings us back to the present. Saltzman enjoyed a solid reputation, and I know that Dowd was respected for his work at Gannett’s North Shore papers. But one person can’t cover a city of nearly 120,000 people. It’s long past time for someone to step in and provide Cambridge with the news and information it needs.

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More Gannett papers end print publication in favor of digital

As I noted earlier this week, Gannett is ending print publication of The Middleboro Gazette in favor of digital-only distribution. It turns out the Gazette is not alone. Here is a list (which may or may not be comprehensive) of other Gannett papers in Eastern Massachusetts that are also abandoning print.

Ironically, Ipswich does have a print newspaper — the nonprofit Ipswich Local News, co-founded by the late Bill Wasserman, who sold his Ipswich Chronicle in the 1980s to a chain that ultimately morphed into Gannett. Several other communities on this list have independent local papers as well.

As I wrote the other day, this isn’t necessarily the worst move Gannett could make as long as the company is serious about not cutting back on news coverage. Ending the cost of printing and distribution is smart as long as the money saved is invested in journalism. But Gannett executives are going to have to prove that they mean it.

Gannett closes Middleboro Gazette but vows a commitment to digital

Middleborough bank building, circa 1910

This one hurts. Gannett today announced that it is shutting down The Middleboro Gazette, and it did so with an insulting message that included every cliché you can imagine short of “in order to serve you better.” The company’s message suggests that it will not cut back on coverage, which will be available online at The Standard-Times website. I hope they’re right. We’ll see.

I grew up in Middleborough. (People spell it both ways, but “-borough” is correct, damn it.) I remember touring the weekly’s offices, which included its own hot-lead press, when I was in elementary school. Later, I wrote a column of high school news for the Gazette.

Here’s part of Gannett’s announcement:

This business decision reaffirms The Middleboro Gazette and Middleboro Gazette Extra’s commitment to the sustainable future of local news. The Middleboro Gazette, the Middleboro Gazette Extra and their parent company, Gannett, understand many readers value and depend upon the news and information they find weekly in their print products. The company’s focus on digital news presentation helps ensure continued delivery of valuable community journalism and effective platforms for advertisers.

Over the summer Gannett closed about a half-dozen weeklies in the Greater Boston area. I had hoped they were done. Not to repeat myself, but if the chain is truly committed to transitioning to digital while providing the same amount of local news coverage, then I think that’s fine. The company has done nothing to earn anyone’s trust, though. That will have to be earned.

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Things are looking up at Gannett. But will that translate into more journalism?

USA Today is Gannett’s flagship. But what about the weeklies? Photo (cc) 2008 by Mossmen.

Things are looking up a bit at Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, which controls the vast majority of weekly and daily newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts and environs.

Rick Edmonds of Poynter reports that digital subscriptions are up and debt is down, and that the company’s bottom line will be bolstered if the Local Journalism Sustainability Act becomes law. Frankly, I’d rather see the act written in such a way that it benefits only independent local owners. But in many communities, the Gannett paper is the only choice, so if it helps them do a better job then that’s not entirely a bad thing.

It’s difficult to know exactly what is going on in Massachusetts, where Gannett closed about a half-dozen papers during the summer. Joshua Benton recently observed in Nieman Lab that the Gannett-owned Cambridge Chronicle had lost its only full-time journalist. But I hear that she will be replaced soon, indicating that the company has at least some level of commitment to one of its larger communities.

Likewise, in Medford we went a year and a half without a single full-time staffer at Gannett’s weekly Transcript — until about six months ago. Coverage has improved considerably since then. Of course, communities the size of Cambridge and Medford could benefit from more than just one reporter apiece. But at least fears that Gannett was going to run them as ghost newspapers have eased.

The big question: What does the future hold for Gannett’s weeklies, especially in smaller communities? “In recent months, the company has sold a number of weeklies and closed a few others,” Edmonds writes. “They no longer fit with Gannett’s strategic plans.” The company’s current strategy is to focus on its dailies, with USA Today as its flagship.

If Gannett’s numbers are improving, maybe the company will start putting more resources into its papers. My fear, though, is that it may have driven way so many readers with its parsimonious approach to journalism that it could prove impossible to bring them back.

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An elegant, comprehensive takedown of how Alden pillages local newspapers

Illustration by Thomas Nast

Among those of us who have obsessively followed Alden Global Capital’s destruction of newspapers over the years, there was very little that was new in McKay Coppins’ 7,000-word magnum opus that The Atlantic published this week. Still, Coppins is a gifted writer, and he’s pulled together the full story in a manner that is both elegant and comprehensive.

The arc of Coppins’ narrative is familiar. Alden, a hedge fund, got into the newspaper business about a decade ago. At first, Alden indulged the chief executive it inherited from one of the chains it acquired, John Paton, and then turned on him when he wasn’t willing to go along with the drastic cost-cutting they insisted on. I imagine Alden co-founder Heath Freeman was initially impressed with the blunt, profane Paton, who was not averse to slashing expenses to align them with revenues. The problem was that Paton actually cared about journalism and was not on board with Freeman’s insistence on endless rounds of cuts in order to enrich himself and the other co-founder, Randall Smith.

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One fact I hadn’t known previously is that Randall Smith, secretive and a generation or so older than Freeman, is the brother of Russ Smith, founder of the now-defunct New York Press. Russ also founded the Baltimore City Paper, the Washington City Paper and now runs the website Splice Today.

The New York Press was a big deal in the 1990s, as Coppins notes, publishing 10,000-word columns by Smith that attacked the elite media establishment. Smith also once published a lengthy takedown of The Boston Phoenix by another writer that infuriated all of us. I wish I still had a copy. No complaints by me about Smith, though — he wrote a favorable review of my first book for The Wall Street Journal, and I enjoy bantering with him on Twitter about music and baseball.

But back to our story. Coppins’ description of Freeman, the more active and public of the two partners in running Alden’s newspapers, is priceless:

People who know him described Freeman — with his shellacked curls, perma-stubble, and omnipresent smirk — as the archetypal Wall Street frat boy. “If you went into a lab to create the perfect bro, Heath would be that creation,” says one former executive at an Alden-owned company, who, like others in this story, requested anonymity to speak candidly. Freeman would show up at business meetings straight from the gym, clad in athleisure, the executive recalled, and would find excuses to invoke his college-football heroics, saying things like “When I played football at Duke, I learned some lessons about leadership.” (Freeman was a walk-on placekicker on a team that won no games the year he played.)

And Coppins’ description of Alden’s business model is right on target:

What threatens local newspapers now is not just digital disruption or abstract market forces. They’re being targeted by investors who have figured out how to get rich by strip-mining local-news outfits. The model is simple: Gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible out of the enterprise until eventually enough readers cancel their subscriptions that the paper folds, or is reduced to a desiccated husk of its former self….

Alden’s calculus was simple. Even in a declining industry, the newspapers still generated hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenues; many of them were turning profits. For Freeman and his investors to come out ahead, they didn’t need to worry about the long-term health of the assets—they just needed to maximize profits as quickly as possible.

Where I have a bit of a problem with Coppins is that though he credits some of the earlier reporting he relies on, he’s haphazard about it. I winced at his sole reference to Julie Reynolds, whom he quotes indirectly a single time and identifies only as a former reporter for the Monterey Herald in California. In fact, since leaving the paper Reynolds has been indefatigable in reporting on Alden. It was because of her 2017 cover story for The Nation, for instance, that we know Randall Smith used his ill-gotten newspaper gains to buy 16 mansions in Palm Beach, Florida. Just recently she reported for Nieman Lab that Alden’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing was tainted by dubious gamesmanship of the sort that should have prompted a do-over.

Then there’s the Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum, whose bid to buy Tribune fell short this past spring. In August, Rick Edmonds of Poynter reported that Bainum was launching a well-funded digital news nonprofit in order to compete with Alden’s Baltimore Sun. Coppins writes about that without giving any credit, and it’s being repeated in media circles as though it was his scoop.

But these are quibbles. Coppins is a gifted writer and has done a prodigious amount of reporting of his own.

Recently The Atlantic published an essay by Elaine Godfrey about the damage done to her hometown newspaper in Iowa by Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain. (Alden’s holdings come in second.)

The Atlantic deserves credit for using its prestige to focus on the local news crisis, and on the Wall Street greed that has transformed it into a catastrophe.