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How Rupert Murdoch saved the Boston Herald — not just once, but twice

As I noted Thursday, one of the few positive contributions Rupert Murdoch can take credit for is preserving The Wall Street Journal as a great national newspaper. Another is that he saved the Boston Herald — not once, but twice. Larry Edelman of The Boston Globe writes about the first time (he interviewed me). I tell that story as well as the tale of Murdoch’s second rescue in my 2018 book “The Return of the Moguls,” which I excerpt below.

The Hearst chain, which had converted the Herald (known then as the Herald American) to a tabloid during the final years of its ownership, had run out the string by 1982. I remember one old-timer telling me that, with closure just hours away, workers came in to rip out the vending machines from the paper’s hulking plant in the South End. At the last minute, Murdoch reached a deal with the unions and the paper was saved.

Under Murdoch’s ownership, the Herald established itself as a feisty alternative to the Globe, sometimes beating its larger rival on important local stories. That continued in the 1990s after Murdoch’s protégé Pat Purcell bought it from him. To this day there are people who believe that Murdoch continued to pull the strings behind the scenes, but I never believed it. Murdoch just didn’t care that much about the Herald, and I don’t doubt that he let Purcell have it on extremely favorable terms.

Unfortunately, the Herald’s financial model pretty much stopped working in the early 2000s, and today it’s owned by the New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital, famous for sucking the life out of its papers. Alden owns two other Massachusetts papers as well — The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

At one time Murdoch also owned the Ottaway chain, which included the Cape Cod Times and some small weeklies, including the Middleboro Gazette, where I grew up. Murdoch is fondly remembered by taking a hands-off approach, but I honestly wonder whether he even knew those papers were part of his empire. The Gazette was later closed by the Gannett chain, and today Middleborough is served by an independent startup, Nemasket Weekly.

Here’s what I wrote in “Moguls” about the Herald and Murdoch’s TV station, WFXT-TV (Channel 25), which he sold off a few years ago. The “endless struggle” I refer to was the Herald’s long-time ownership of Channel 5, an existential threat to the Globe that was removed when the Globe reported that its rival had gained the broadcast license because of corruption at the Federal Communications Commission. The Herald was stripped of its license in 1972, and Hearst swooped in to pick up the pieces.

The Globe’s endless struggle with the Herald’s broadcast ambitions played itself out in one last, faint echo in 1988, when Murdoch, who then owned the Herald, purchased Channel 25. Ted Kennedy, by then a leading member of the Senate, quietly slipped a provision into a bill that made it almost impossible for the FCC to grant a waiver to its rule prohibiting someone from owning both a daily newspaper and a TV station in the same market. At the time, I was a reporter for The Daily Times Chronicle, which served Woburn and several surrounding communities north of Boston. I remember covering a local appearance by Kennedy as he was dogged by the Herald reporter Wayne Woodlief. “Senator, why are you trying to kill the Herald?” the persistent Woodlief asked him several times.

Murdoch chose to sell off Channel 25, thus saving the Herald; he repurchased the TV station after selling the Herald to Purcell. But the Herald columnist Howie Carr remained bitter. He told me years later that Kennedy’s actions were worse than [Globe ally Tip] O’Neill’s, since O’Neill was just trying to help one of several papers rather than destroy the Globe’s only daily competitor. “I think Tip was just trying to get an ally,” Carr said, “whereas Ted was trying to kill the paper in order to deliver the monopoly to his friends.”

The liberal reputation the Globe developed during the Winship era was cemented during Boston’s school desegregation crisis of the mid-1970s, when the Globe wholeheartedly supported federal judge Arthur Garrity’s order to bus children to different neighborhoods in the city to achieve racial balance. It was a terrible time in Boston, as white racism ran rampant and bullets were fired into the Globe’s headquarters and at one of the paper’s delivery trucks. The Globe took the right moral stand, and its coverage earned the paper its second Pulitzer for Public Service. Winship in those years enjoyed a reputation as one of the finest editors in the country. But it was also during those years that the Globe became known as the paper of Boston’s suburban liberal elite and the Herald that of the urban white working class, a dichotomy that has persisted to this day.

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A Hearst daily in Connecticut will soon go weekly

The Register Citizen of Torrington, Connecticut, is moving from daily to weekly print publication starting March 12. The paper is part of the Hearst CT chain, which has gone all-in on digital — so I wouldn’t criticize this move unless it results in less coverage.

Dean Pagani broke the news Wednesday at The Laurel. Hearst published an announcement today.

Emulating its R.I. strategy, The Boston Globe next year will move into N.H.

The State Capitol in Concord, N.H. Photo (cc) 2010 by Jimmy Emerson, DMV.

There was news in Mark Shanahan’s Boston Globe story on the decline of the once-great Providence Journal under Gannett ownership: the Globe is opening a New Hampshire bureau sometime in 2023, a move similar to what it’s done in Rhode Island.

At one time the Globe took New England coverage seriously, even publishing a Sunday section called New Hampshire Weekly. On a recent episode of our podcast about local news, “What Works,” Nancy West, executive director of the investigative news organization InDepthNH, said she would welcome a Globe comeback in the Granite State.

“I loved it when the Globe came up and was doing important reporting,” she said, citing in particular the paper’s coverage of a cardiac surgeon at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester whose horrendous malpractice record was obscured by his status as an operating-room star. “Was I a little jealous? My first instinct is jealousy, of course,” West told us. “But then I’m just really pleased that the word is getting out.” She added: “I would love to have the Globe come back. I would love to see it because we just need talented reporters on the street. And I think competition is healthy.”

Unlike Rhode Island, New Hampshire’s two major daily newspapers, the New Hampshire Union Leader and the Concord Monitor, are independently owned. Both, however, have endured significant cuts to their reporting capacity in recent years. As West says, another news organization focused on the state would be welcome.

As with Rhode Island, New Hampshire is an opportunity for the Globe to sell more digital subscriptions without the hassle of bygone days, when it was necessary to truck papers across New England.

So where might the Globe go next? Vermont strikes me as a stretch. Connecticut? Probably not. Much of the state roots for the Yankees, and Hearst CT has a growing digital operation. Maine? Possibly, although the Globe has collaborated on some stories with the Portland Press Herald. I’m not sure they’d want to compete. If they do, David Dahl, a former top editor at the Globe who’s now editor of the nonprofit Maine Monitor, told us on “What Works” that he’d love to work with his old paper. “We’re open to any partnership discussions that we would have,” he said, “and if they want to affiliate with us, they’re more than more than welcome.”

The most logical move for the Globe after New Hampshire would be an expanded presence in Central Massachusetts — ironic given that Globe owner John Henry acquired the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester when he bought the Globe in 2013 only to sell it to out-of-state interests. The T&G eventually landed in the hands of GateHouse Media, which merged with Gannett; like most of Gannett’s properties, the T&G has been gutted.

At a time when the decline of advertising and fears of recession are leading to cuts even at once high-flying newspapers like The Washington Post, it’s heartening to see that the Globe continues to focus on expansion.

Advance to go digital-only at four of its papers in Alabama and Mississippi

The sun is setting on print in Birmingham, Albama, and several other communities served by Advance newspapers. Photo (cc) 2020 by drjoshuawhitman.

When I speak to audiences about the future of local news, inevitably I’m asked if I think newspapers at some point will end their print editions once and for all. I always respond that I’m not a good person to answer that question — 25 years ago, I assumed they’d be long gone by now. Not only are they still here, but even as digitally focused a news outlet as The Boston Globe was still making more than half of its money from print as recently as a year ago.

I do think that we’re going to see newspapers cut back on print days, eventually moving to one big weekend print paper with digital distribution the rest of the week. But that’s not going to happen as long as publishers believe there’s still money in print advertising and circulation, both of which command a premium compared to digital.

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Which is why I was intrigued by an announcement by the Advance chain last week that its three Albama and one Mississippi newspaper will end their print editions altogether by early 2023.

“We remain deeply committed to serving our local communities and are producing high-quality journalism and reaching more people than ever before,” said Tom Bates, president of Alabama Media Group, in a statement published by AL.com. “At the same time, we’re adjusting to how Alabama readers want their information today, which increasingly is on a mobile device, not in a printed newspaper.”

I’m not going to snark. Advance is a privately held company owned by the Newhouse family, and I think they are genuinely trying to find a way forward. In Massachusetts, Advance owns The Republican of Springfield and MassLive.com, which are run more or less as separate operations.

A better analogy to Alabama and Mississippi, though, is Advance’s New Jersey properties. Advance publishes the largest daily newspaper in that state — The Star-Ledger of Newark — and two smaller dailies, The Times of Trenton and the South Jersey News, as well as several smaller publications. All of them operate under the NJ.com banner, and the emphasis is on digital subscriptions. There’s a unified newsroom of about 115 journalists who feed stories to both NJ.com and to the print editions. It’s similar to what Hearst is doing in Connecticut with one newsroom serving the New Haven Register, the Connecticut Post, several smaller papers and the digital-only CTInsider.

The difference in Alabama is that Advance is ending the print editions and focusing on its digital-only operations, shutting down three Alabama papers — The Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times and the Press-Register of Mobile — and The Mississippi Press.

Is this smart? In 2012, Advance cut The Times-Picayune back to three days of print at a time when broadband penetration in New Orleans and the surrounding area lagged behind other parts of the country. An outcry resulted, and the move was reversed the following year. But the damage had been done; The Times-Picayune, a once-great paper that had served as a lifeline following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, ended up being acquired in 2019 by an independent daily, The Advocate of Baton Rouge.

Even so, 2012 was a long time ago. Today, according to the Alabama Media Group, AL.com is in the top 10 of local news websites in the U.S., reaching about 11 million users each month. Statista reports that broadband penetration in 2019 was about 81% in Alabama and about 76% in Mississippi; no doubt those figure are higher today. (By comparison, that number was 88% in Massachusetts.) Still, Alabama and Mississippi are among our poorest states, and the move away from print is going to leave some people behind.

“The print side of our business does not make economic sense in Alabama,” Bates told Alexandra Bruell (free link) of The Wall Street Journal. Bruell reported that the circulation of Advance’s three Alabama papers is down to around 30,000, a drop from 260,000 a decade ago.

So this seems like a good time for Advance to try moving into a digital-only future. If it enhances the bottom line, then other publishers can be expected to follow suit. And if that, in turn, provides a boost to Advances local journalism, then that will be good news for everyone.

Hearst CT de-emphasizes print while expanding its newsroom and digital subs

The New Haven Register’s printing plant is long gone. And now its owner, Hearst, will be printing it out of state as the chain doubles down on digital subscriptions. Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy.

A newspaper battle is brewing in Connecticut — but print is becoming an afterthought.

Hearst Connecticut recently announced that it would move its printing operations to Albany, New York, meaning that deadlines for titles such as the New Haven Register and the Connecticut Post of Bridgeport will be earlier than ever. Twenty-eight jobs will be eliminated, reports Greg Bordonaro of the Hartford Business Journal.

At the same time, Hearst has been growing in Connecticut. The chain is adding positions to its combined newsroom of about 160 full-timers. According to confidential sources I’ve been in touch with with, digital subscriptions have risen from about 21,000 to 39,000 over the past 16 months.

With Connecticut’s statewide daily, the Hartford Courant, being strangled by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, the privately owned Hearst is attempting to fill the void. Last summer, Hearst unveiled a new statewide website, CTInsider, that has its own staff and also draws on content from Hearst CT’s eight dailies and 13 weeklies.

It’s an approach that emphasizes statewide and regional coverage over community watchdog reporting, and it’s similar to what Advance is doing in New Jersey, where papers such as The Star-Ledger of Newark, The Times of Trenton and the South Jersey Times have been united under the NJ.com banner. Nevertheless, the emphasis on growth and real journalism at Hearst CT is heartening at a time when hedge-fund cutbacks are dominant.

Lincoln Millstein on his journey from media exec to hyperlocal journalist

Lincoln Millstein

Lincoln Millstein played a critical role in launching The Boston Globe’s free digital site, boston.com, in 1995. Boston.com began as a portal, and carried Globe journalism but also curated other news sites and community blogs. It had a separate staff, and the office was in downtown Boston, not in the old Dorchester plant. Lincoln went on to be executive vice president at New York Times Digital, then moved on to the Hearst Corporation, where he held a number of different roles.

When Lincoln retired as senior assistant to CEO Steven Swartz of Hearst in 2018, he wondered what was next. He found the answer by returning to his roots as a local reporter, recalling the days when he started out in the Middletown bureau of the Hartford Courant in the mid-1970s.

He and his wife, Irene Driscoll, also a longtime journalist, had upgraded their summer place in Maine in anticipation of spending more time there in retirement. Then the pandemic hit, and they moved in. He started picking up lots of local scoops on how the pandemic was affecting businesses. Not to mention the occasional deer collision. That’s how The Quietside Journal got its start.

Dan has a Quick Take on the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, which recently won a big public-records victory over the city of Worcester, which has been stonewalling them for years, and Ellen looks at newsroom layoffs and transparency.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app (as long as it’s not Spotify).

The latest bad idea for chain newspapers: Robot reporting on real estate

Tom Breen of the New Haven Independent covers real-estate transactions the old-fashioned way. Photos (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

At least two New England newspaper publishers have begun using artificial intelligence rather than carbon-based life forms to report on real-estate transactions.

The Republican of Springfield, online as MassLive, and Hearst Connecticut Media, comprising the New Haven Register and seven other daily newspapers, are running stories put together by an outfit called United Robots. MassLive’s stories are behind a hard paywall, but here’s a taste from the Register of what such articles look like.

United Robots, a Swedish company, touts itself as offering “news automation at massive scale using AI and data science.”

Last year I wrote about artificial intelligence and journalism for GBH News. I’m skeptical, but it depends on how you use it. In some ways AI has made our lives easier by, for instance, enhancing online search and powering the inexpensive transcription of audio interviews. But using it to write stories? Not good. As I wrote last year:

Such a system has been in use at The Washington Post for several years to produce reports about high school football. Input a box score and out comes a story that looks more or less like an actual person wrote it. Some news organizations are doing the same with financial data. It sounds innocuous enough given that much of this work would probably go undone if it couldn’t be automated. But let’s curb our enthusiasm.

Using AI to produce stories about real-estate transactions may seem fairly harmless. But let me give you an example of why it’s anything but.

In November, I accompanied Tom Breen, the managing editor of the New Haven Independent, as he knocked on the doors of houses that had been foreclosed on recently. The Independent is a digital nonprofit news site.

A note Breen left behind asking the resident to call him. (Phone number removed.)

Breen has spent a considerable amount of time and effort in housing court and poring through online real-estate transactions. From doing that, he could see patterns that had emerged. Like Boston and many other cities, New Haven has experienced an explosion in real-estate prices, and a lot of owners are flipping their properties to cash in. In too many cases there are victims — low-income renters whose new landlords, often absentee, jack up the rents. Breen takes the data he’s gathered and rides his bike into the neighborhoods, knocking on doors and talking with residents. It’s difficult, occasionally dangerous work. Once he was attacked by a pit bull.

We didn’t have much luck on our excursion. No one was home at either of the two houses we visited, so Breen left notes behind asking the residents to call him.

“If investors are swapping properties at $100,000, $200,000 above the appraised value and tens of thousands of dollars above what they bought it for two days prior,” Breen told me, “all that can do is drive up costs that are passed down to the renters — to the people actually living in the building.”

The result of Breen’s enterprise has been a series of stories like this one. The lead:

Tenants of a three-family ​lemon” of a house on Liberty Street are wondering how two landlords managed to walk away with $180,000 by double-selling a property that they say remains a dump.

You’re not going to get that kind of reporting from artificial intelligence.

Now, of course, you might argue — and some have, as I noted in my GBH News piece — that AI saves journalists from drudge work, freeing them up to do exactly the kind of enterprise reporting that Breen does. But story ideas often arise from immersion in boring data and sitting through lengthy proceedings; outsource the data collection to a robot, and it’s likely that will be the end of it.

Bad sign: Here’s how Breen and I were greeted at one foreclosed-upon property. (Names removed.)

At the corporate chains that own so many of our newspapers, there’s little doubt that AI will be used as just another opportunity to cut. Hearst and Advance, the national chain that owns The Republican, are not the worst or most greedy newspapers chains by any means. But both of them have engaged in more than their share of cost-cutting over the years.

And it’s spreading. United Robots’ U.S. clients include the McClatchy newspaper chain and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, part of the Cox chain. No doubt the Big Two — Gannett and the groups owned by Alden Global Capital — won’t be far behind.

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.

With Alden destroying the Hartford Courant, Hearst goes statewide and digital

The Connecticut Statehouse in Hartford. Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy.

Chain ownership is almost never a good thing. But some chains are better than others — and Hearst is among the very best. No doubt its status as a privately owned company whose family is involved in management has a lot to do with that. The legendary mogul William Randolph Hearst would be proud.

Among other things, the Hearst-owned Times Union of Albany, New York, did some of the crucial early reporting about sexual assault allegations against Gov. Andrew Cuomo — accusations that have brought him to the brink of resignation or removal.

Hearst has been making some interesting moves in Connecticut for quite some time. Now, with the hedge fund Alden Global Capital tearing apart what’s left of the Hartford Courant, Hearst is positioning itself as a digital rival for statewide coverage. Rick Edmonds of Poynter reports that the company has launched a new website, CTInsider.com, that features coverage from its 160 journalists at eight dailies and 14 weeklies and websites in the state.

CTInsider.com offers a combination of free and paid content. Subscribers pay $3.99 a week after an initial discount.

The Hearst paper I’m most familiar with is the New Haven Register, a daily paper that figured heavily in my 2013 book about hyperlocal news projects, “The Wired City.” The project I was profiling, the New Haven Independent, a digital nonprofit founded in 2005, was providing deep coverage of the city, filling a gap left by the dramatic downsizing of the Register.

It was an interesting time for the Register. Under the ownership of the reviled Journal Register chain, the Register had lurched into bankruptcy. Journal Register then morphed into Digital First Media, headed by a visionary chief executive named John Paton who, about a dozen years ago, provided a jolt of optimism. Soon, though, Alden moved in, merging Digital First with its Denver-based chain, MediaNews Group, and, well, you know the rest. But then Hearst bought the New Haven Register a few years ago, and the paper has since undergone something of a revival.

The Hartford Courant had thrived for many decades as Connecticut’s sole statewide paper. But under Tribune Publishing’s chaotic ownership, it had been shrinking for many years. During the years that I was reporting “The Wired City,” a pair of vibrant websites devoted to covering state politics and policy had popped up — the for-profit CTNewsJunkie.com and the nonprofit Connecticut Mirror, both of which are still going strong.

Things went from bad to worse at the Courant earlier this year when Alden added Tribune to its holdings despite efforts by the staff to find a local buyer.

It’s great to see Hearst now upping its game in Connecticut as well.

Matt DeRienzo is out as Hearst’s chief news executive in Connecticut

Matt DeRienzo (via LinkedIn)

Note: Now updated with email from Mike DeLuca, president and publisher of Hearst Connecticut Media Group.

Holy cow. Matt DeRienzo is out as chief news executive for Hearst’s Connecticut newspapers, anchored by the New Haven Register. I hear he’ll be replaced by Canadian journalist Wendy Metcalfe.

I first met DeRienzo in 2011 when I was wrapping up my book on the nonprofit New Haven Independent, “The Wired City,” and he had just been named editor of the Register. At the time, DeRienzo was a rising star within the forward-thinking Digital First chain being built by John Paton. After Digital First became part of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, everything went south, and DeRienzo eventually quit in protest.

At Hearst, DeRienzo championed the case of Tara O’Neill, a Hearst reporter who was arrested and handcuffed while covering a Black Lives Matter protest in Bridgeport. O’Neill’s case was the subject of a WGBH News New England Muzzle Award earlier this year.

About a month ago, Hearst’s Connecticut Post became the first major daily newspaper to call upon President Trump to resign.

What follows is an internal email sent to the staff from Mike DeLuca, president and publisher of the Hearst Connecticut Media Group, which I obtained a short time ago.

Colleagues,

Coming up on five months leading HCMG [Hearst Connecticut Media Group], I have been impressed with much of what has been done and the strides we have made across the organization. There is no doubt, we are the best equipped media company in all of Connecticut to provide high-quality news and information that matters to our customers.

In an era when our industry is facing significant headwinds, I take great comfort in being a part of Hearst, whose commitment to journalism is unsurpassed and unwavering.

While much of what is happening everyday here should be applauded, it is my job to ensure we have the right vision and leadership to continuously improve.

After thoughtful consideration, it is my pleasure to welcome Wendy Metcalfe as our new Vice President of Content and Editor in Chief. Wendy will be charged with the responsibility of upgrading the quality of our enterprise reporting across all of our newsrooms while working with our consumer marketing teams to deepen the engagement we have with our readers. Wendy comes to us from the Brunswick News Inc. where she oversaw Editorial, Marketing, Circulation and Customer Services. Under her leadership, Wendy’s teams have been recognized nationally for some of the most important enterprise news reporting that has had a direct impact on the quality of life in the communities served. Most notably, the Telegraph-Journal received the 2018 Michener Award which is the highest honor in Canadian journalism and often called the Canadian Pulitzer Prize, with only one awarded across Canada each year.

Additionally, Wendy has extensive experience in executive positions at national, regional and local media companies. Key roles include Assistant Managing Editor at Canada’s biggest newspaper — the Toronto Star, Editor-in-Chief of the Toronto Sun, Regional Content Director for 19 Sun Media publications and a lead role at the Daily Record — one of the U.K.’s largest dailies.

She was also recently named one of the top 10 leading women to watch in media across North America by Editor & Publisher.

Wendy will arrive to CT with her husband and two children in mid-November and I am thrilled to welcome her.

In a related move, Matt DeRienzo will be leaving HCMG to pursue other opportunities and I thank him for his contributions and wish him the best.

We will be meeting with the various newsroom teams throughout the rest of today and tomorrow to communicate interim reporting structures.

Thank you all for everything you are doing and I am looking forward to speaking with you over the next few days.

Mike

MIKE DELUCA

HEARST | President & Publisher, Hearst CT Media Group | CEO, LocalEdge

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