No, the Digital First approach to newspaper ownership is not defensible

Politico media columnist Jack Shafer has written, if you can believe it, a semi-defense of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and its principal, Randall Smith, who are in the midst of running their newspapers into the ground. Alden owns the Digital First Media chain, whose Denver Post is the locus of an insurrection against hedge-fund ownership. The 100-paper chain also owns three Massachusetts properties: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

Shafer’s argument is a simple one: the end is at hand for the newspaper business, no one has figured out how to reverse its shrinking fortunes, and so therefore Smith can’t be blamed for squeezing out the last few drops of profit before the industry collapses. “Smith may be a rapacious fellow,” Shafer writes, “but his primary crime is recognizing that print is approaching its expiration date and is acting on the fact that more value can be extracted by sucking the marrow than by investing deeper or selling.”

Now, it’s possible that Shafer is right. But I’m considerably more optimistic about the future of newspapers than he is. Let me offer a few countervailing examples.

1. I certainly don’t want to sound naive about GateHouse Media, a chain of several hundred papers controlled by yet another hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group. GateHouse, which dominates Eastern Massachusetts, runs its papers on the cheap, too, and I’ve got a lot of problems with its barebones coverage of the communities it serves.

But GateHouse, unlike Digital First, is committed to newspapers. That’s why both insiders and outsiders were hoping GateHouse would buy the Herald. I genuinely think the folks at GateHouse are trying to crack the code on how to do community journalism at a profit for some years to come — and yes, its journalists are underpaid, and yes, I don’t like the fact that some editing operations have been centralized in Austin, Texas. But it could be worse, as Digital First demonstrates. For some insight into the GateHouse strategy, see this NPR story.

2. Smaller independently owned daily papers without debt can do well. The Berkshire Eagle is in the midst of a revival following its sale by Digital First to local business interests several years ago. In Maine, a printer named Reade Brower has built an in-state chain centered around the Portland Press Herald that by all accounts is doing well.

3. Large regional papers like The Denver Post are the most endangered. Transforming The Washington Post into a profitable national news organization, as Jeff Bezos has done, was a piece of cake compared to saving metros. As I describe in “The Return of the Moguls,” billionaire owner John Henry of The Boston Globe is pursuing a strategy that could result in a return to profitability: charging as much as the market will bear for print delivery (now up to more than $1,000 a year) and digital subscriptions ($30 a month). Globe executives say the paper is on track to pass the 100,000 mark for digital subscriptions in the first half of this year, and that the business model will start to look sustainable if it can reach 200,000.

In other words, reinventing the newspaper business is not a hopeless task. Randall Smith and Alden Global Capital have taken the easy, cynical route — but not the only route. There are better ways.

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Here we go again: No, print will not save the shrinking newspaper business

This 1910 photo of an 8-year-old Philadelphia newsboy, Michael Mc Nelis, was taken by Lewis Hine for the Children’s Bureau of the US Department of Commerce and Labor.
This 1910 photo of an 8-year-old Philadelphia newsboy, Michael Mc Nelis, was taken by Lewis Hine for the Children’s Bureau of the US Department of Commerce and Labor.

A few years ago Paul Bass and I appeared on a Connecticut radio station to talk about the future of local journalism. Bass was and is the founder, editor, and publisher of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit, online-only news organization that is the main subject of my book The Wired City.

Bass and I both came out of the world of alternative weeklies. He was the star reporter for the New Haven Advocate. I was the media columnist for the Boston Phoenix. While we were on the air, he told a story about a club owner in New Haven who had once advertised heavily in the Advocate—but had found he could reach a better-targeted audience on Facebook while spending next to nothing.

Need I tell you that both the Advocate and the Phoenix have gone out of business?

I’m dredging up this anecdote because the Columbia Journalism Review has published a much-talked-about essay arguing that newspapers made a huge mistake by embracing all things digital and should instead have doubled down on print. Michael Rosenwald writes that instead of chasing ephemeral digital revenues, newspapers should have built up their print editions and offered more value to their readers.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Jack Shafer: Don’t blame the media for Donald Trump

Jack Shafer of Politico puts into words what I’ve been inchoately thinking: Though the media surely have not covered themselves in glory by showering so much attention upon the candidacy of racist demagogue Donald Trump, it’s really not their fault that he’s leading the Republican field. Taking note of the epic negative coverage Trump has received, Shafer concludes:

If you were a conventional media observer, you might say that the Trump candidacy demonstrates not the power of the press, but—overwhelmingly, and to our chagrin—its relative powerlessness. But maybe that’s just what we want you to think.

Trump is a creation of the media, of course—but not of the news media. As Shafer observes, he’s been a fixture in the entertainment media for years on the strength of The Apprentice and his bestselling books.

I’d dial Shafer’s take back a bit. I do think the media are to blame for giving Trump way too many column inches (look it up, kids) and too much air time at the expense of the other candidates, and I don’t think the coverage has been as tough as it should have been until recently. But neither do I think the media had it within their power to derail the Trump Express.

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Boston.com hires a top editor

Matt Gross
Matt Gross

Boston.com, the venerable free website started by The Boston Globe in the mid-1990s, relaunched earlier this year with a new design and a difficult task: to find an audience without any Globe content, which was moved lock, stock and barrel behind the BostonGlobe.com paywall (with fairly generous sharing options).

The site also launched without a top editor, although Hilary Sargent of ChartGirl fame (see this Jack Shafer story) has been a visible presence as news and homepage editor. The new Boston.com offers a combination of aggregation, viral content and some original reporting. Traffic initially took a dip, but rose every month from April through July, according to Compete.com.

Now the site has named an editor — Matt Gross, the former editor of BonAppetit.com. Sargent will be his deputy. The press release is below.

Boston (Sept. 10, 2014) — Matt Gross, award-winning editor, writer and author, has been appointed as the new editor of Boston.com, effective Sept. 29.

Since 2012, Gross, 40, was editor of Condé Nast’s BonAppetit.com, where he designed and executed an innovative content strategy that tripled the number of monthly unique visitors in less than two years. Under his direction, BonAppetit.com became a widely known digital hub for entertainment, style, events, recipes, and pop culture.

From 2006-2010, he wrote the popular “Frugal Traveler” column for the New York Times, traveling to dozens of countries in pursuit of money-saving tips for fellow travelers.

He has also written on food and travel for several national publications, including Afar and Saveur magazines, and served as an editor at outlets ranging from FoxNews.com to New York Magazine and Vietnam News. He is also the author of 2013’s “The Turk Who Loved Apples,” a chronicle of his world travels.

“My primary goals as Boston.com editor are to understand what readers are interested in, how they use the site, and how Boston.com can best serve its audience,” said Gross.

“I’ve been to many cities around the world and my favorite ones are those that have a very distinct personality. Boston is unique, and I look forward to leading the team at this vibrant website that is such a critical part of the city’s daily conversations.”

Long before becoming a multilingual globetrotter, Matt called Massachusetts home, having grown up in Concord and Amherst. He is relocating to Boston from Brooklyn with his wife, Jean, and two young children.

“Matt’s experience gives him a unique perspective that will drive compelling content, leveraging multimedia and social channels to tell great stories on Boston.com, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary next October,” said Corey Gottlieb, Executive Director, Digital Strategy & Operations at Boston Globe Media Partners. “His vision will help to further define Boston.com’s identity.”

Boston.com also announced that Hilary Sargent has been named deputy editor of the site. Sargent, formerly the news and homepage editor, has been key in the reinvention of Boston.com content for the past ten months.

“NPR” is not a synonym for public radio

This is a mistake that comes up over and over, and today’s offender is the Boston Globe. The headline on an editorial about the Mike Daisey/“This American Life” debacle reads “NPR: Exposing Apple’s worm, and its own.”

The editorial itself refers to “This American Life” as an “NPR show.” It goes on to note that Daisey’s fabrications about his trip to China were unearthed by “another NPR reporter.” (“Another”? Daisey is not a reporter.)

If you haven’t figured out where I’m going by now, “This American Life” is not an NPR program. It’s produced by Chicago’s WBEZ Radio, a public station, and distributed by Public Radio International, a competitor of NPR’s.

Daisey’s assault on the truth was exposed by a reporter for “Marketplace,” which is produced by American Public Media, yet another NPR competitor.

But wait. Doesn’t “This American Life” appear on NPR stations? No. And here’s where it gets confusing. Plenty of public radio stations market themselves as NPR stations because it’s a name brand they can use to attract listeners and advertisers — oops, sorry. Underwriters. NPR itself does not own stations.

Both of Boston’s large public stations, WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM) call themselves NPR stations. But WBUR’s license is held by Boston University, and WGBH is an independent nonprofit organization that includes radio and television stations. (Disclosure: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH.) NPR is just one of several services (albeit the best-known) from which public radio stations buy programming.

“In a just world,” Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer recently tweeted, “we could say ‘NPR’ to describe all public radio, just as saying ‘Kleenex’ covers Scott Tissues and generic brands.”

Shafer was kidding, of course. And it does get confusing. But NPR takes enough grief from its critics without having to get blamed for programming on rival networks.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to send an email to CNN complaining about Sean Hannity.

Afternoon update: The headline and editorial have been rewritten, and a correction has been appended.

Photo (cc) by Raul654 and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Debating Keystone, the environment and the Chinese

I honestly had no intention of using Storify again today, or even any time soon. But after Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and I tweeted back and forth over the merits of Joe Nocera’s New York Times column on the Keystone XL pipeline, Reuters media critic Jack Shafer said I should post it. So here it is. The world will little note nor long remember …

[View the story “Hot liberal-on-liberal action” on Storify]

Slate inexplicably lays off Jack Shafer

Jack Shafer

Earlier this summer, Mark Lisheron called and asked if I’d like to talk with him for a profile of Slate media critic Jack Shafer that he was writing for the American Journalism Review. Well, of course. Shafer is among the very best when it comes to journalism about journalism. He’s also been kind to me over the years, so I was happy to return the favor. You can read Lisheron’s piece here.

Then, yesterday, the inexplicable happened: Slate got rid of Shafer, according to AdWeek, with editor David Plotz citing ongoing financial woes at the pioneering webzine. Erik Wemple of the Washington Post also ties the move to problems at the Washington Post Co., which owns Slate.

Shafer is a dogged reporter in a field where too many media critics would prefer to sit back and pontificate. (Yes, irony alert. I get it.) But he wore his reporting lightly in the sense that you could tell how much research he’d put into his pieces, yet he didn’t feel compelled to show his work all the time. As a small-“l” libertarian, he also brought a calm, iconoclastic perspective to a field dominated by liberals and conservatives thundering at each other about allegations of bias.

It was Shafer who popularized my two favorite descriptions of Rupert Murdoch: “rotten old bastard” and “genocidal tyrant.” Though Shafer is no admirer of Murdoch, he uses the former description more affectionately than not, and “genocidal tyrant” is actually something Murdoch himself coined. Nevertheless, I always enjoy borrowing those descriptions and crediting them to Shafer.

As for Slate, well, times are tough, and I suppose Plotz has access to website traffic numbers to justify his decision. But as far as I’m concerned, Shafer is pretty much the only reason to look at Slate, and it’s hard to imagine I’ll even bother with it anymore other than for exceptional articles someone flags on Twitter.

Shafer, I suspect, will soon surface in a better job than he’s got now. Still, this is a bitter day.

Photo via the Missouri School of Journalism.

Four smart people, two debates

In today’s Boston Globe, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate and Globe columnist Scot Lehigh take on the issue of former Massachusetts Senate president Bill Bulger’s conduct with regard to his brother Whitey Bulger, the notorious mobster who’s been charged in connection with the killings of 19 people.

Silverglate argues that Bill Bulger, also a former president of UMass, was under no obligation to help authorities capture his brother, and that the testimonial privilege granted to spouses should be extended to other family relationships as well. Lehigh counters, “Faced with a moral dilemma, William repeatedly made the wrong choice, putting loyalty to his felonious brother over responsibility to his neighborhood, his constituents, or the larger public community whose university he led.” (Note: Silverglate and I collaborate occasionally, and the latest example will be online later today.)

On an entirely different matter, Slate media columnist Jack Shafer assesses Patch, AOL’s network of hyperlocal sites, and finds them lacking. “Besides being wildly expensive to create, hyperlocal news doesn’t seem to appeal to a broad audience,” Shafer writes.

That prompts a response from Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, an independent hyperlocal site in western New York. (Owens posts two comments; read the second one first.) Here’s an excerpt:

As my friend and fellow indie publisher notes, it’s only expensive if you have a big corporate structure to support and shareholder demands to meet. There are a handful of successful local online ventures that produce a ton of highly engaging, sought after, popular, memorable local news that do it at a fraction of the cost of the corporate entities.

I posted a brief comment as well, contending that Shafer’s complaint seems to be more about his lack of interest in community news than about anything intrinsic to Patch.

Instant update: Paul Bass, editor and founder of the New Haven Independent, just weighed in. And if you scroll way down, you’ll see a brief comment from another Media Nation favorite, Debbie Galant, co-founder and co-editor of Baristanet in Montclair, N.J.

Reflections on the state of media criticism

Hayes_20091222I’ve got an essay in the current issue of Nieman Reports on the evolution of media criticism, from its roots in the work of A.J. Liebling and the alternative press to its current status as an Internet-fueled growth industry.

The essay is, in part, a review of a new book by the media scholar Arthur Hayes called “Press Critics Are the Fifth Estate: Media Watchdogs in America.” Hayes deliberately eschews journalistic practitioners of media criticism such as Jack Shafer, Howard Kurtz, David Carr, Eric Alterman and Liebling himself in favor of political activists. (The cover aside, Stephen Colbert and even Jon Stewart receive surprisingly little mention.)

Hayes’ argument is that activists from ideological organizations such as Accuracy in Media on the right and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting on the left are more likely to bring about change than those whose mission it is to report on media institutions and write about their findings. As you might imagine, I disagree. I write:

At its best, media criticism — like all good journalism — is about digging out uncomfortable facts and telling them fearlessly. It is difficult to do well and, it shouldn’t be the critic’s job to bring about change. Truth is a rare enough commodity that it ought to be valued for its own sake.

Hope you’ll take a look.

Jack Shafer’s Rx for the Globe

Writing in Slate, Jack Shafer picks up on the ideas of Philip Meyer, whose argues in his book “The Vanishing Newspaper,” and in a more recent piece in the American Journalism Review, that newspapers should cater to the elite, well-educated audiences that are already their last dedicated readers.