By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Judith Pfeffer

Bob Sprague tell us about his 17 years at the helm of yourArlington

Bob Sprague at his recent retirement party, which doubled as a fundraiser for yourArlington

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Bob Sprague, a pioneer in hyperlocal journalism and the founder of yourArlington, a nonprofit news project that covers Arlington, Massachusetts. Bob, who has lived in Arlington since 1989, was not only the founder — he was the editor of the website until July 1 of this year, when he retired. The new editor is Judith Pfeffer.

Bob was an Arlington Town Meeting member in 2006-09, and was also a journalist. He has been a reporter and an editor at The Boston Globe and Boston Herald, among other publications. He launched the town’s website in 1998, but also recognized a need for an independent, nonpartisan source of information. In 2006, he launched yourArlington.

I’ve got a Quick Take on the latest report on the state of local news by Penelope Muse Abernathy, who’s now at the Medill School at Northwestern University. The report has a lot of bad news, some good news, and some interesting information from The Boston Globe and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which is one of the news outlets that we profile in our forthcoming book, “What Works in Community News.”

Ellen talks about another Massachusetts local startup, The Belmont Voice. The nonprofit Voice has an impressive roster of advisers from the print and digital world — and is, along with the Belmontonian, one of two independent sources of community journalism in the town.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

Correction: Bob contacted us to let us know that a recent town proclamation honoring his service misstated the time when he was a member of Arlington’s Town Meeting — and that it overlapped with his early years of publishing yourArlington. “I did find it difficult to be a TM rep and report about Town Meeting,” he says.

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No, Arlington is not a ‘news desert’ — and the Globe should have done some checking

Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy

Among the more venerable local news startups in the Boston area is YourArlington, which has been publishing in one form or another since 2006. Founded by veteran journalist Bob Sprague, the digital-only site in the past couple of years has gone nonprofit, added a governing board, and hired an editor, Judith Pfeffer, who succeeded Sprague when he retired during the summer. YourArlington offers fairly comprehensive coverage of the town and has paid freelancers. (Disclosure: Some of those paid freelancers have been Northeastern students, and I’ve been asked to speak at Sprague’s retirement party in November.)

So imagine my surprise when I read Boston Globe tech reporter Hiawatha Bray’s story about Inside Arlington, a new project that is mainly produced by artificial intelligence: feed in the transcript of a select board meeting and publish what comes out the other side. Mainly I was surprised that Bray let cofounder Winston Chen get away with this whopper: “The town of Arlington, for practical purposes, is a news desert.” Bray offered no pushback, and there’s no mention of YourArlington. (Gannett merged the weekly Arlington Advocate with the Winchester Star about a year and a half ago and eliminated nearly all town-based coverage in favor of regional stories. There’s also a local Patch.)

Bray is properly skeptical, noting that several experiments in AI-generated stories have come to a bad end and that there’s no substitute for having a reporter on site who can ask follow-up questions. Still, there’s no question that AI news reporting is coming. Nieman Lab recently reported on a hyperlocal news organization in California that’s been giving AI a workout, although that organization — so far — has had the good sense not to publish the results.

But it’s disheartening to see the Globe take at face value the claim that Arlington lacks a local news organization. Scanning through YourArlington right now, I see a story about affordable housing that was posted today, a restaurant review, a story and photos from Town Day and a reception for the new town manager. Such coverage is the lifeblood of community journalism, and it can’t be replicated with AI — and I don’t see any of it at Inside Arlington.

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