The New Haven Independent prepares to reboot

NHI goodbye party

Previously published at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Not too many months ago, Paul Bass gave serious thought to shutting down the New Haven Independent, the online-only nonprofit news site he founded in 2005.

“A while back, I considered whether I still had the energy to keep going,” Bass said. “I was burnt.”

He decided to keep it alive. And now he’s getting ready to relaunch with two new full-time staff reporters — one who will start the day after Labor Day, the other who has yet to be hired.

For a small community news organization, the Independent has been remarkably stable. Last week, Bass threw a going-away party for managing editor Melissa Bailey, who will be a Nieman Fellow starting this fall, and staff writer Thomas MacMillan, who is moving to New York to seek his fame and fortune. Both began working at the site as it was ramping up, Bailey in 2006 and MacMillan the following year. (The fourth staff member, Allan Appel, recently cut back to a part-time position.)

Several hundred people gathered in and outside the Woodland Café, near the New Haven Green, to say goodbye to Bailey and MacMillan. Their photography was on display, accompanied by QR codes that smartphone users could access to take them to the stories where those photos first appeared. Copies of Bailey’s just-published book on education reform in New Haven, “School Reform City: Voices from an American Experiment,” were on sale, along with Appel’s novel “The Midland Kid: Tales of the Presidential Ghostwriter.” Mayors past (John DeStefano) and present (Toni Harp) were on hand, as were a number of other community leaders.

“It’s really hard for me to imagine leaving New Haven for more than a few days, let alone a whole year,” Bailey told the crowd. MacMillan defined the privilege of being a journalist: “You ask questions and people just open up to you and give you these amazing stories.”

When I met with Bass afterwards, he talked about how difficult it would be to replace the two. “They’re community journalists. They love the work. They grew so much,” he said. “They both learned so many things, and they really ran the operation with me.”

Yet their departure will allow him to solve a longstanding problem: having an all-white staff cover a city where African-Americans and Latinos are in the majority. “The people I’m hiring will diversify the staff racially,” Bass told me. The Independent has used minority freelancers and interns, but all of its full-time staff journalists have been white.

The reboot of the Independent comes at a crucial time. The regional daily paper, the New Haven Register, has gone through several rounds of cuts in recent months — including one announced just last week — as its owner, Digital First Media, prepares for a widely predicted sell-off. In a few years, Digital First has gone from a closely watched experiment in reinvention to just another sad tale of chain journalism gone wrong.

Thus the Independent’s mix of political and neighborhood news, education reporting, and, increasingly, a focus on the arts fills a real need.

Despite the challenges of keeping a nonprofit going, Bass has had quite a bit of success with fundraising. Currently, he said, he has pledges through 2015 to cover the $420,000 budget for the Independent and a satellite two-person site in the northwest suburbs called the Valley Independent Sentinel. In recent years, he added, his fundraising base has shifted from about 75 percent foundation grants to about 25 percent. Most of the money comes from high-net-worth donors in the New Haven area. About $15,000 to $20,000 comes from small donors.

Late in 2013, Bass applied for a low-power FM license to operate a nonprofit community radio station in New Haven. He has yet to hear from the FCC, but he continues to hope it will come through. “I think we’d engage the readership in a new way,” he said.

For now, though, he’s planning to do something he’s never done before: ramp down the Independent for a few weeks. Posting will be minimal this week and next. And he’s going to stop posting completely during the last two weeks of August — a first since the Independent began publication in late August of 2005. Then comes the new Independent.

“I’m not going to have the same experience level I have now, so it’s going to be different,” Bass said. “I don’t think I can replace Thomas and Melissa.”

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Measuring the effectiveness of nonprofit news

New Haven Green
New Haven Green

Among the more difficult challenges I faced when I was researching “The Wired City” was trying to figure out the influence — and thus the effectiveness — of the New Haven Independent, the nonprofit online-only news site that is the major focus of the book. So I was intrigued when NPR reported last week that the folks who run Charity Navigator hope to unveil effectiveness ratings for nonprofits in 2016. I suspect it won’t be easy.

Nonprofit news presents special challenges. You can measure a food pantry’s effectiveness by how many families get fed, or an orchestra’s reach in terms of attendance, educational programs and the like. But how do you measure the effectiveness of a news organization?

The way I tried to answer that question was to look at numbers, but to look beyond the numbers as well. Certainly the numbers couldn’t come close to telling the whole story. The Independent’s main competitor is the regional daily newspaper, the New Haven Register, whose website receives considerably more traffic than the Independent’s (two to three times as much, according to Compete.com‘s very rough numbers) — and which, unlike the Independent, has a daily print edition. How can the Independent possibly exercise the same amount of influence?

It can’t. But that doesn’t mean that it’s ineffective. Since it’s not a mass-circulation outlet, the Independent relies on reaching civically engaged people — city leaders, neighborhood activists and anyone who takes an interest in what’s going on in New Haven on a daily basis.

In a 2009 interview, Michael Morand, an associate vice president at Yale, described the Independent’s readers as “active voters, elected and appointed officials, opinion makers, civic activists as measured by people who are on boards, leaders of block watches and other neighborhood organizations.” Mayor John DeStefano told me in 2011 that he considered the Register to be “the dominant media,” but added that the Independent serves “those that follow city government and community-based activities.”

One issue stood out for me as an example of how the Independent could be effective while reaching a niche audience. In the fall of 2010 the Independent — following the lead of the Yale Daily News — began reporting on incidents in which police officers ordered people not to video-record them while they were making arrests and engaging in other activities. The Independent reported on the story for months, and revealed that one man on a public sidewalk had his cellphone confiscated and the video erased; the man was charged with interfering with police.

The Independent’s reporting led to real reform. An investigation was conducted. Mayor DeStefano and the police chief at that time, Frank Limon, ordered that officers stop harassing people trying to video-record their actions as long as they weren’t interfering in police business. Mandatory training in how to respond to video-camera-wielding members of the public was added to offerings at the police academy — training that Independent founder Paul Bass and I observed during a visit to the academy. And state Sen. Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, introduced legislation to make it clear that such recording was legal.

The Independent also builds influence through public events — community forums such as political debates and other events that are webcast and covered by other media as well. A particularly prominent example was a school forum in late 2010 starring education-reform critic Diane Ravitch.

I don’t think numbers tell the story, but here are a few:

  • According to the Independent’s internal counts from Google Analytics and Mint, the site receives between 120,000 and 140,000 unique visitors a month.
  • The Independent’s Facebook page has been “liked” 3,443 times as of this morning.
  • The Independent’s Twitter feed, @NewHavenIndy, has 4,486 followers.
  • The site’s weekly news email has about 4,000 subscribers, according to Bass — up about 1,000 over the past year.
  • A separate arts email has about 5,000 subscribers.

And here’s a cautionary tale for publishers who rely on outside services like Facebook, which have their own agendas: Bass told me that a change in policy may be responsible for less traffic coming to the Independent from Facebook. “Now they don’t automatically show your posts to all your followers. They show them to a sample, hoping you’ll pay to reach more of your people,” Bass said in an email last week. “So we’ve seen a drop in Facebook traffic as a result. (Which maybe quite fair. We use them free as paperboys.)”

When I asked Bass how he thought funders and prospective funders could measure the effectiveness of nonprofit news, his response was that he wasn’t sure. So what attempts have his funders made? “They look at what we publish, how people interact with it, how they experience the site’s impact living and working in the area,” Bass said. “No one has asked us for numbers.”

According to the NPR story, reported by Elizabeth Blair, some nonprofits are resisting Charity Navigator’s attempt to measure how well they’re doing. And there’s no question it will be difficult — maybe impossible — to come up with a fair system that everyone will agree on.

But it seems worth trying, especially in journalism. With traditional for-profit news, the relationship between revenue and quality is only tangential. News organizations are judged by how well their advertising moves products and services. You’d like to think that advertisers would rather be associated with quality news than the alternative, but that’s not necessarily the case.

With nonprofit news, the better the journalism, the more influence it will have — and the more attractive it should be to funders.

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

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.