Local journalism, civic life and “The Wired City”

Paul Bass speaking at the New Haven Independent's 10th-anniversary party, Sept. 15, 2010.
Paul Bass speaking at the New Haven Independent’s fifth-anniversary party, Sept. 15, 2010. Yes, that’s two-time U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon in the background.

This article appeared previously at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

The star attraction was supposed to be Diane Ravitch, a prominent critic of education reform. But the real stars were the audience members themselves.

I had driven to New Haven on this day in late November 2010 to see if Paul Bass, the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, could pull off an audacious experiment in civic engagement. The Independent, a nonprofit online-only news organization, is the principal subject of my new book, “The Wired City.” The subtitle — “Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age” — reflects my belief that news can’t survive without public participation. What we got that night was full immersion.

Stage right, Ravitch sat with 11 other people — principals, teachers, school officials, a high school student, a board of education member and the like. Stage left, a half-dozen media folks and elected officials, including Mayor John DeStefano, were live-blogging the event. The forum was webcast on television and radio, as well as on the websites of the Independent and the New Haven Register, the city’s daily newspaper. Viewers at home — and, for that matter, those in the auditorium who had laptops — were able to engage in a real-time, online conversation with the live-bloggers. Afterwards, readers posted a total of 53 comments to the two stories the Independent published (here and here). The archived video was posted as well. Finally, in a touch that seemed almost old-fashioned, the 200 or so people who attended were invited to line up at two microphones during an extended question-and-answer period.

Among the myriad crises facing journalism, perhaps none is more vexing than civic illiteracy. Starting in the 1990s, leading thinkers such as New York University’s Jay Rosen began sketching out ways for news organizations to listen to their audience’s concerns and to shape their coverage accordingly. This “public journalism” movement, as it became known, fizzled as newsroom budget cuts and criticism from traditional journalists took their toll.

But if the audience doesn’t care about the public-interest aspects of journalism, then there really isn’t much hope for a revival. Over the years, newspaper publishers have responded to the decline of civic life by loading up on celebrity gossip and so-called news you can use, such as personal finance and cooking tips. It’s a losing game, because there are always going to be better sources of such information than the local newspaper.

More than a dozen years ago the Harvard scholar Robert Putnam, in his classic book “Bowling Alone,” found that people who were engaged in civic life — voting in local elections, taking part in volunteer activities, attending religious services or participating in any number of other activities — were also more likely to read newspapers. “Newspaper readers,” he wrote, “are machers and schmoozers.

Trouble is, Putnam’s machers and schmoozers were aging even then. And so it is up to news organizations not merely to serve the public, but to nurture and educate the public so that it is engaged with civic life, and thus with the fundamental purpose of journalism.

C.W. Anderson, in his book “Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age,” writes that “journalists [report] the news in order to call a particular form of public into being.” Along similar lines, I argue in “The Wired City” that creating a public is at least as important as reporting on its behalf. No longer can it be taken for granted that there is a public ready to engage with news about last night’s city council meeting, a speech by the mayor or plans by a developer to tear down a neighborhood landmark and replace it with yet another convenience store.

Howard Owens, the publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit site in western New York that I also write about in my book, once put it this way:

Local community news is currently only a niche product. Entrepreneurs need to think about not only “how am I going to appeal to the people who care now, but how am I going to get more people to care about their community so I can grow my audience?”

In researching “The Wired City,” I learned that the readership for the New Haven Independent comprises a wide swath — elected officials, city employees (especially police officers and teachers), leaders and activists in the African-American community, dedicated localists and members of what struck me as a surprisingly large and politically aware group of bicycling advocates.

Though the Independent’s audience is not as large as that of the New Haven Register, its concentration inside the city limits and its popularity among opinion leaders — “the grassroots and grasstops circles,” as Michael Morand, an associate vice president at Yale, described it to me in an interview — gives the site outsize influence. Indeed, it was the Independent’s relentless coverage of a controversy over the video-recording of police actions by members of the public that led to a clarification from the police chief that such recording was legal. It also led to mandatory training for all officers.

Thus what we see in New Haven, in Batavia and in other places where news organizations are trying new methods of bridging the divide between journalism and the public is a revival of the ideas Jay Rosen and others first began championing two decades ago. “What we today call ‘engagement’ was a central feature of many civic-journalism experiments, but in a way we were working with very crude tools then,” Rosen told me in 2011. “It’s almost like we were trying to do civic engagement with heavy machinery instead of the infinitely lighter and cheaper tools we have now.”

The “wired city” that I argue the New Haven Independent brought into being is a community built around local news, empowered by the “lighter and cheaper tools” that have become available during the past decade and a half. Through events like the Diane Ravitch forum, through carefully (if not perfectly) curated user comments and through the now-taken-for-granted convenience of always being just a few clicks away, the Independent has succeeded not so much as an entity unto itself but as the hub of a civic ecosystem.

As Clay Shirky has observed, with local newspapers slowly fading away, no single alternative will replace what they once provided. We need a variety of experiments — for-profit, nonprofit, cooperative ownership and voluntary efforts. The challenge all of them face is that serving the public is no longer enough. Rather, the public they serve must first be assembled — and given a voice.

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy and published here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Online news sites enable two arrests

Video from surveillance cameras amplified by online news sites led to the arrests of two people sought by police in recent weeks.

One of the incidents took place last Thursday in the western New York community of Batavia, where a camera at a Walmart captured an image of a man who allegedly yelled loudly at a young child and then threw him onto a concrete floor.

According to an account in YNN Rochester, state police contacted Howard Owens and asked him to publish a photo in The Batavian, an online news site of which he is the editor and publisher.

That night, a 28-year-old man was arrested and charged with endangering the welfare of a child and harassment. Here is Owens’ account of the arraignment.

“Fifteen to 20 minutes of it being posted, we had numerous calls coming into our dispatch at the State Police Batavia and the Genesee County Sheriff’s dispatch,” Trooper Holly Hanssel was quoted as telling YNN. “Him posting the picture immediately on his website was huge and that absolutely helped us.”

Owens’ competition, The Daily News, referred to The Batavian simply as “an online news site” in its own report on the arrest, apparently not wanting to identify its crosstown rival. The paper also reported that “police did not provide The Daily News or other media with the photo.”

Frankly, that strikes me as odd. Regardless of why law enforcement approached Owens first, it seems to me that the police should have wanted to get the photo out to as many media outlets as possible. It also strikes me as a possible violation of public records laws, although police generally have a great deal of discretion while a crime is being investigated.*

Regardless, it was a coup for The Batavian.

The other incident involves a convenience store robbery that took place in New Haven on May 16. Paul Bass, editor and publisher of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news site, posted a video clip from the store’s surveillance camera showing an older man calmly showing the clerk a gun and then grabbing cash out of the register.

Incredibly, the man’s family saw the story and persuaded the man — described as 57 years old and homeless — to turn himself in. “I’m just a drug addict. I’m just on hard times. My family convinced me to turn myself in,” the man reportedly told police.

A day later, police heard from someone who said he and a friend had been robbed by the same man when he approached them on the street.

Both the Independent and The Batavian are featured in “The Wired City,” my book on online community news.

*Update: Owens has posted a comment, and I realize now that I assumed The Daily News had requested the photo and was turned down. In fact, that does not appear to be the case.

At The Batavian, a leech slithered darkly

A malicious computer virus known as “Darkleech,” which has hit an estimated 20,000 websites recently, created a big problem last week for The Batavian, an online-only news site that covers Genesee County in western New York. Some visitors — especially those using Internet Explorer on a Windows computer (gee, what a surprise) — ended up with the virus themselves.

Publisher Howard Owens was forced to remove all advertising from the site until the weekend, when he switched over to a new, improved ad server. Owens wrote on Saturday:

This virus crisis was very stressful and I want to thank all of the readers and local business owners who were so patient and understanding over the past week. We didn’t get a single angry phone call or e-mail; nobody accosted me in the street. Everywhere I went people were more curious than upset with the situation.

As you can see if you pay The Batavian a visit, it’s once again displaying dozens of local advertisers. The Batavian, which marks its fifth anniversary this Wednesday, won a “Spirit of Downtown” award last week and is featured in “The Wired City,” my book about local and regional online news.

Local journalism and the perils of retail chains

IMG_1095One of the arguments I make in “The Wired City” is that the viability of local journalism depends on the vibrancy of the local communities it serves. Among the projects I look at is The Batavian, a for-profit online-only news site that serves Genesee County in western New York, about halfway between Buffalo and Rochester.

The Batavian is a free site, though publisher Howard Owens is experimenting with a membership model to provide extra benefits to readers who choose to pay. But what really makes The Batavian work, and has allowed it to prosper despite co-existing with a local daily newspaper, is the persistence of locally owned businesses. The site is packed with ads from car dealers, florists, pizza shops, hair salons, doctors’ offices, funeral homes and much more.

So I was intrigued when Owens posted a story on Friday reporting that a Dick’s Sporting Goods may be moving in to a former Lowe’s location — and that more than $1 million in tax incentives may be used to make it happen. Dick’s, of course, is a large corporate-owned chain, and it would compete directly with locally owned sporting-goods dealers.

One of those local business people, Mike Barrett of Batavia Marine, compared such tax incentives to “using your own tax money to put yourself out of business.”

There are, of course, other considerations. WBTA Radio, which has a content-sharing arrangement with The Batavian, reports that Dick’s would bring 120 much-needed jobs to the area. The Batavian’s competition, the Daily News (which, citing an anonymous source, reports that it’s a done deal), quotes a local official named Gregory Post as saying, “Anytime we can convert empty space and bring in a retailer of that magnitude is good. This will be fantastic for our town.”

In the long run, though, the spread of corporate chains and big-box stores leads to the demise of locally owned businesses. That’s bad for communities and for the news organizations that serve them. Owens, a dedicated localist, gets it.

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy. Some rights reserved.

Boston Globe fun-with-numbers edition

Ken Doctor’s analysis of the “newsonomics” of The Boston Globe’s pending sale continues to yield rich insights. One part I find particularly interesting is his estimate that the Globe’s natural ceiling for digital subscriptions is probably in the vicinity of 105,000. It’s currently 28,000.

(As I’ve explained before, the auditors also give the Globe credit for seven-day print subscribers who access BostonGlobe.com at least once a week, which means the paper currently reports having 50,000 digital subscribers.)

The Globe charges about $15 a month for digital subscriptions, with or without home delivery of the Sunday print edition. Yes, there are a lot of discounts in there, but just as a quick math exercise, let’s pretend there aren’t. So:

105,000 x $15 x 12 months = $18.9 million per year

If you figure an average of $100,000 in pay and benefits per employee, that adds up to 189 people — about half of the paper’s 365 journalists.

I’m leaving out a lot of expenses (including, most significantly, non-newsroom employees), but I’m also leaving out other revenue sources — mainly seven-day print circulation, print and online advertising, and commercial printing of other newspapers, including the Boston Herald, currently issuing daily predictions of the Globe’s imminent demise.

It also seems to me that one underexploited opportunity is online advertising at BostonGlobe.com. Yes, it’s nice to give paying customers a clean, uncluttered reading experience. But surely there could be a few more ads without devolving into flashing banners, pop-up windows and stuff floating across the page. I like ads. “Ads are content,” as Howard Owens says. They contribute to a sense of community and vitality.

Globe spokeswoman Ellen Clegg recently told me that the Globe’s total number of unique monthly visitors is 7.5 million — 6 million at the free Boston.com site and 1.5 million at BostonGlobe.com. I would think you could sell a decent amount of advertising to an online audience of 1.5 million. Currently, though, when you read articles you can often find white space where an ad ought to be.

One caution is the Globe’s new policy of limiting social sharing on BostonGlobe.com and cutting the amount of Globe content on Boston.com. Editor Brian McGrory has said that the goal is to boost digital subscriptions. The danger is that the restrictions:

  • may fail to turn all but a tiny handful non-subscribers into paying customers;
  • may hurt Boston.com’s traffic by making the site less enticing; and
  • may (actually, will) reduce unpaid traffic to BostonGlobe.com, thus making it a less desirable platform for advertisers.

Fortunately, the restrictions can be tightened or eased depending on whether or not they are working as intended.

In Chicago, too much hyperlocal competition?

A couple of friends today sent me a link to Mike Fourcher’s ruminations on what he learned running the Center Square Journal, a hyperlocal news site in Chicago that he started three years ago. He offers 21 lessons, and they’re not without value. But what stands out from my reading of them is that he simply faced too much competition for advertisers and readers. And that, in turn, was a consequence of his making an unfortunate choice of location.

Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 4.07.11 PMThe sites I profile in “The Wired City” — mainly the New Haven Independent, but also The Batavian, CT News Junkie, the Connecticut Mirror, Voice of San Diego and Baristanet — have very different business models, but they all have one thing in common: a niche that was being woefully underserved before they came along to serve it.

New Haven illustrates my point. Paul Bass launched the Independent in 2005 to provide city and neighborhood news that was largely being ignored by everyone else — including the region’s daily paper, the New Haven Register, which tended to focus on the suburbs around New Haven. Eight years later, the Independent and the Register still serve different audiences. They compete for certain types of city news, but mainly they stay out of each other’s way. And because the Independent is a nonprofit, they’re not competing for scarce advertising dollars.

The Batavian is very different from the Independent, but it has similar advantages. The for-profit site was launched in Batavia, N.Y., by the GateHouse chain in 2008 as a pilot project. In 2009 it was acquired by Howard Owens after he was let go as GateHouse’s director of digital media.

The Batavian was up against two established news organizations: The Daily News and WBTA Radio. Owens formed a partnership with the radio station and competed fiercely with The Daily, as the locals call it. Unlike Fourcher’s experience in Chicago, though, there really wasn’t anyone else.

Like Paul Bass in New Haven, Owens carved out a niche by going more local than his competition — one county for The Batavian versus three for The Daily. It turned out that the business community was vibrant enough to support a daily newspaper, a radio station and a community website. But if there were, say, a half-dozen websites all trying to turn a profit, it’s not likely any of them would be able to make money.

Fourcher, a refugee from the robo-news operation Journatic, is now trying something interesting. He’s called a community meeting for Jan. 31 to see if his readers like the Center Square Journal enough to help him continue it in some form, or possibly to take it over in its entirety.

What’s evident from his 21 lessons, though, is that he fell short of making the Journal a vital part of his readers’ lives — possibly because there were already too many other voices competing for people’s time, attention and dollars.

Rick Daniels to step down as head of GateHouse Media NE

Rick Daniels
Rick Daniels

Rick Daniels will step down as president of GateHouse Media New England at the end of the year. GateHouse publishes about 100 community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts — mostly weeklies, but also a few medium-size dailies, including the MetroWest Daily News of Framingham, the Patriot Ledger of Quincy and the Enterprise of Brockton. The company also runs about 150 Wicked Local websites.

In my rather minimal dealings with him, Daniels, a former Boston Globe executive, struck me as amiable and wanting to do right by local journalism. The same is true of Kirk Davis, president and CEO COO of all GateHouse properties, who will take over Daniels’ responsibilities on an interim basis.

But for years now, GateHouse — which runs more than 400 publications and websites from its national headquarters in suburban Rochester, N.Y. — has been staggering under the burden of $1.2 billion in debt. In August 2011, the Rochester Business Journal reported that GateHouse was “the most highly leveraged of any publicly traded newspaper company,” with debt nearly 14 times cash flow.

And just a few months ago, Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth Magazine wrote that GateHouse itself had raised the possibility of bankruptcy in its annual report.

Thus in recent years we’ve seen a number of high-profile executives lopped off the payroll, including digital-publishing chief Howard Owens, now the publisher and editor of The Batavian, a widely admired local news site that he actually started for GateHouse, and Greg Reibman, former publisher of GateHouse’s Greater Boston papers, now president of the Newton Needham Chamber of Commerce. Also leaving was Kat Powers, managing editor of GateHouse Media New England, now director of communications for the American Red Cross of Eastern Massachusetts.*

Daniels is supposedly leaving GateHouse to pursue unspecified “investment and advisory roles for media companies.” At least no one is claiming that he wants to spend more time with his family.

“There’s a lot of pretty interesting deals that are out there and I’ve been approached by some folks who would like to do some of those deals,” Daniels told the Patriot Ledger. “They seem to have some interest in having operators with some experience.”

My guess is that if Daniels is quickly replaced, then his leave-taking was voluntary. And if Davis is still interim president six months from now, then Daniels’ departure should be seen as a cost-cutting move.

Five years ago I wrote about GateHouse’s debt woes for CommonWealth and talked pretty extensively with Davis. It’s been a long time, but the issues haven’t changed all that much.

Here is Davis’ email to the troops, a copy of which was forwarded to Media Nation by a trusted source earlier this afternoon:

I’m writing to explain some important news that is “public” today.

Rick Daniels, who has presided over our Massachusetts operations for the past 5 1/2 years, will be leaving his post at the end of the year. Rick plans to pursue investment and advisory roles to a variety of media companies.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Rick throughout his career at GateHouse Media. He’s proven himself to be a very capable and accomplished executive, one who has led an accelerated transformation of our newspapers and web sites through very difficult economic times. Rick departs with our deepest gratitude and admiration and has graciously agreed to continue to provide any assistance I may need in order to ensure a seamless transition.

I will assume responsibility for our Massachusetts group on an interim basis. I’ve been affiliated with our operations in Massachusetts for many years and have always appreciated the support I’ve received from employees. I’ll enjoy reconnecting with staff.

In light of Rick’s departure, I will appoint a few key executives to assist me and our strong management team in Massachusetts through this transitional period. Look for that announcement before January 1.

Again, it has been a pleasure working with Rick. We are extremely grateful for his leadership the past 5 1/2 years and wish him much continued success.

Thanks,
Kirk

*Correction: Kat Powers did not lose her job at GateHouse, as I originally wrote. Rather, she left the company to take a position with the Red Cross.

Coughing up (or not) for online content

I have been in the throes of rewriting my book the past few weeks, which is why blogging has been sporadic. But let me pause to offer a reading suggestion — Howard Owens’ 10 arguments against paywalls for online news, published yesterday by the Columbia Journalism Review.

Particularly good is No. 9: “Paywalls don’t address the fundamental issues facing newspapers.”

Although I’m not as resolutely opposed to paywalls as Owens, he lays out the arguments against them intelligently and forcefully.

On gay marriage, real names and a real discussion

Howard Owens

I’ve long been an admirer of Howard Owens’ real-names policy for online commenters. It’s one of the reasons I adopted it for Media Nation a couple of years ago. So I was intrigued when he tweeted this morning, “When you manage your comment community correctly, you can run a poll on gay marriage and have the convo remain civil.”

I clicked through to his community-news site, The Batavian, in rural western New York. As I write this, 1,501 people had responded to his survey question: “Do you support gay marriage?” About 45 percent said “yes” and 55 percent said “no.” And Owens was right: I couldn’t find a non-civil comment among them.

What I found was an engaged and engaging discussion (with a bit too much esoterica on states’ rights for my taste), with Owens himself making occasional contributions — an important part of keeping the online conversation on track. Given the volatile nature of the topic, I asked him if he pre-screened the comments or had deleted any after they were posted. His answer: no, and no. Impressive.

I’m not entirely opposed to allowing anonymous comments. At the New Haven Independent, for instance, editor and founder Paul Bass argues that teachers, police officers and other stakeholders wouldn’t dare express their thoughts if they had to reveal their identities. The Independent is often held up as a model of community engagement.

Yet the Independent runs off the rails from time to time, and earlier this year Bass had to tighten up his guidelines — including requiring real-name registration, though anonymous commenting is still allowed.

I can’t say it enough: News organizations have to find effective ways to engage with their users. Just because it isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. (You may thank me later for the triple negative.)

Howard Ziff on the varieties of local journalism

Howard Ziff

Last summer I was interviewing New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen for my book about the New Haven Independent and other community news sites. He told me I had to read an essay by Howard Ziff on the difference between the “provincial” and “cosmopolitan” styles of journalism. So I did. It was brilliant, and I ended up quoting from it in my book.

More on that in a moment. Ziff, who founded the UMass Amherst journalism department, died on Tuesday at the age of 81. This obituary, by Nick Grabbe of the Daily Hampshire Gazette, is particularly good, and is well worth your time. Also recommended: the obit in the school paper, the Massachusetts Daily Collegian. I’m sad to say that though I know a number of people in the UMass journalism department, I never had the pleasure of meeting Ziff.

To get back to “provincial” and “cosmopolitan” journalism — in the 1980s, Ziff wrote an essay called “Practicing Responsible Journalism: Cosmopolitan Versus Provincial Models.” After talking with Jay, I managed to find Ziff’s essay in a hard-to-locate book called “Responsible Journalism,” edited by Deni Elliott.

Ziff helped me understand my own experience in journalism. I spent the first part of my career as a community journalist — as a Northeastern co-op student at the Woonsocket Call in the 1970s, and as a staff reporter and editor for the Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn in the 1980s.

In Ziff’s view, community journalism — provincial journalism — was more about being part of the community than it was standing apart as objective, disengaged observers. Some of the people I worked with, especially in Woonsocket, were folks who had grown up there, who didn’t go to college, but who had the wit to find a job that kept them out of the mills.

They were good reporters. But they were not plotting a career path that would take them, say, from the Call to the Providence Journal and then to the Washington Post. If they were going to leave the Call at all, it would be to work for the local chamber of commerce, or for a Rhode Island elected official.

Ziff’s idea was that this was “provincial” journalism, and that it was neither better nor worse than “cosmopolitan” journalism — it was just different. And the practices that cosmopolitans sneered at — accepting junkets, being slow and cautious in covering stories that embarrassed the community — actually made a great deal of sense for a provincial institution like the local newspaper. Ziff wrote:

When we turn, however, to principles and responsibilities that are more specific to the vocation of journalism, we find that those that apply to the cosmopolitan, professional model do not necessarily apply to the provincial model. In the first instance we are concerned with responsibilities and ethical considerations that can act as moral regulators of the autonomy upon which we insist for journalism as a profession, and not surprisingly we come up with principals such as objectivity and disinterestedness. In the latter, we set as our goal service to the community and province, and will often find that our moral obligation is to be subjective and compassionate.

Ziff lamented the transition of even smaller, community-based newspapers from the provincial to the cosmopolitan — a change he attributed to the rise of corporate chains that bought up locally owned dailies and staffed them with careerist young people with no ties to the community:

It is a great sadness of American journalism today that however diverse their geographic background and polished their skills, so many journalists are valued because they are interchangeable; they put themselves behind the word processor in whatever city to which they are called by corporate employers. The unique value of each person and each region is thus endangered by a system of replaceable parts, and we are in danger of losing sight of the simple truth that the fact that you cannot move a Mike Royko from Chicago or a Jimmy Breslin from New York is a sign of their towering strengths as journalists.

And, in fact, professionalism — that is, cosmopolitanism — may have something to do with why the newspaper business is struggling so much these days. I know that Howard Owens, the publisher and editor of The Batavian, a small, for-profit news site near Buffalo, holds that view. I don’t discount it either, though I think the business pressures that are harming the news business have more to do with corporate debt, technology and cultural change than they do with professionalization.

I brought up the essay on Twitter the other day after learning that Ziff had died. Jay asked me to send him a copy of it, and I realized I couldn’t find it. But I know where I can make another one, and I’m going to do it as soon as I’m able.

Howard Ziff’s work will live on in many ways. For me, it’s through an essay he wrote a quarter-century ago that observed how the news business was changing, and what was worth preserving about a time-honored model that was just then beginning to pass from the scene.