Want more local news? Contact your legislators to support a proposed study.

Photo via Pixabay.

As the Legislature heads into its final days, a proposal to study the decline of local news in Massachusetts has been revived. A bill filed by state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, would create a special commission “to research and propose policy solutions.”

The 23-member commission would include legislators, academics, journalists and news-industry experts. As currently drafted, I would be a member of the commission. I wrote about the idea last year for WGBH News.

For many years, Greater Boston’s local-news ecosystem, though far from optimal, was nevertheless in better shape than was the case in other parts of the country. Now, though, corporate chains such as Gannett and Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group are decimating the state’s community newspapers. Though challenges created by technology and, now, the COVID-19 pandemic would be difficult to overcome in any case, corporate greed is compounding the collapse of local newspapers.

If you’re so inclined, I hope you’ll consider contacting your state representative and senator to urge them to support the legislation, which takes the form of an amendment to the state budget. It’s called “Amendment #40, An Act establishing a commission to study journalism in underserved communities.”

Below is the text of Ehrlich’s letter to her colleagues, followed by the language of the legislation:

Dear Colleagues,

I respectfully request your consideration for cosponsorship of Amendment #40, An Act establishing a commission to study journalism in underserved communities. This amendment would create a commission of experts, industry members, academics, and elected officials to research and propose policy solutions related to the state of local journalism in Massachusetts and the future sustainability of the industry.

Journalism is critical to a healthy democracy, and local journalism is an important part of the fabric of our communitie. In the last decade and a half, two trends of out-of-state corporate consolidation and layoffs have led to the disappearance of 1 in 5 newspapers nationwide while countless others have become shells of themselves. A new report from UNC found that since 2004 there has been a net loss of 1,800 local newspapers.

Newsrooms across the country and right here in Massachusetts have been subject to layoffs, asset selloffs, hedge fund takeovers, and cuts in coverage, a trend that is plaguing news organizations across the country. In some parts of the country, “news deserts” are popping up where there is little to no reporting on local issues and stories. Additionally, the journalism industry has faced significant layoffs – according to the Pew Research Center, “Newsroom employment dropped nearly a quarter in less than 10 years, with greatest decline at newspapers.”

The impact of COVID-19 on the newspaper industry is already worse than the toll of the 2008 financial crisis, which saw newspapers experience a 19% decline in revenue.While larger newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post have a large subscription base to curtail damage, local newspapers, many of which are owned by publicly traded companies saddled in debt even before COVID-19, are unlikely to survive.

This commission presents a vehicle for a public discussion allowing Massachusetts to lead a national conversation about journalism and how best to support it in a changing world. Establishing this commission and the report they will produce will be a critical step forward in revitalizing our state’s local news media and ensuring their sustainability as an essential part of our democracy.

If you would like to cosponsor, …

Sincerely,

Lori Ehrlich
State Representative
8th Essex District

The text of the bill follows:

Ms. Ehrlich of Marblehead moves to amend the bill by inserting after section 122 the following new section:

SECTION X. (a) Resolved, that a special legislative commission, pursuant to section 2A of chapter 4 of the General Laws is hereby established to: (i) conduct a comprehensive, non-binding study relative to communities underserved by local journalism in Massachusetts; (ii) review all aspects of local journalism including, but not limited to, the adequacy of press coverage of cities and towns, ratio of residents to media outlets, the history of local news in Massachusetts, print and digital business models for media outlets, the impact of social media on local news, strategies to improve local news access, public policy solutions to improve the sustainability of local press business models and private and nonprofit solutions, and identifying career pathways and existing or potential professional development opportunities for aspiring journalists in Massachusetts.

(b) The commission shall consist of the following 23  members: 2 of whom shall be the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on community development and small business; 1 member of the house of representatives appointed by the speaker of the house; 1 member of the senate appointed by the president of the senate; 1 of whom shall be a professor at the Northeastern School of Journalism; 1 of whom shall be a member of the Boston Association of Black Journalists; 1 of whom shall be a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists; 1 of whom shall be a member of the Asian American Journalists Association of New England; 2 of whom shall be representatives of public colleges or universities of the commonwealth with either a journalism or communications program jointly appointed by the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on community development and small business; 1 of whom shall be a representative of a private college or university of the commonwealth with either a journalism or communications program jointly appointed by the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on community development and small business; 3 of whom shall be representatives of journalism unions or associations appointed by the governor provided further that the appointees are selected from the following unions and associations: the NewsGuild – Communication Workers of America, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians – Communications Workers of America, the Association of Independents in Radio, the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, the New England Newspaper and Press Association, or the New England Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists; 8 of whom shall be currently employed or freelance journalists, editors, or producers from independent community news outlets from across the commonwealth jointly appointed by the house and senate chairs of the joint committee on community development and small business provided further that the appointees represent communities underserved by professional news organizations, rural communities, immigrants communities, working-class communities, and communities of color; and 1 of whom shall be a representative from the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association. All appointments shall be made no later than 30 days following the effective date of this resolve.

(c) The commission shall hold public information sessions in order to explain the work of the commission and to solicit public comment pursuant to the work of the commission. The commission shall hold at least one public information session in each county of the commonwealth and shall provide at least one weeks notice from the date in which the public information session is occurring. The notice shall include, but not be limited to: (i) the date of the public information session; (ii) the time in which the public information session will take place; (iii) the location in which the public information session is occurring; (iv) a description of the format in which the commission will be accepting public comment; and (v) a point of contact. The public notice shall be sent by the commission to the clerks of each municipality of the county in which the public information session will occur and the commonwealth’s director of boards and commissions. In the case of a cancellation or postponement of a public information session, the commission shall provide at least 48 hours notice to the clerks of each municipality of the county in which the public information session will occur and the commonwealth’s director of boards and commissions.

(d) The commission shall accept written and oral comment from the public beginning at the first meeting of the commission.

(e) The commission shall meet a minimum of 5 times to review, study and analyze existing literature, quantitative and qualitative data on the status of journalism in the commonwealth , and submitted oral and written public comment.

(f) The commission shall submit its findings, along with recommendations for legislation, to the governor, the speaker of the house, the president of the senate, and the clerks of the house of representatives and the senate no later than 1 year after the effective date of this resolve.

(g) The special commission may make such interim reports as it considers appropriate.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Together, we can do something about local news coverage in Medford

Last fall I asked the lone full-time reporter for the Medford Transcript if he would take part in the mayoral debate I was helping to organize for the Medford Chamber of Commerce. He told me that he would have liked to, but that he couldn’t because he’d be covering it. A reasonable answer, although it also spoke to the Transcript’s lack of resources.

Not long after, he left the paper. The debate was covered by a part-time stringer. And today, more than a year and a half later, that full-time position still hasn’t been filled.

The Transcript does assign stringers to cover a few stories. They do a good job, and nothing I write here should be taken as denigrating their work. But in a city of nearly 58,000 people, we have enough news for a staff of two full-time reporters. Or four. Even when we had one, the young journalists who filled that position managed to write some important stories before moving on to bigger and better jobs. Zero, though, is just untenable.

Today Medford is very close to being a news desert, joining hundreds if not thousands of communities across the country that have so little coverage that they lack the reliable news and information they need to participate in local affairs in a meaningful way. Instead, we rely on Facebook, Nextdoor, Patch (which does have a little bit of original reporting), email lists, messages from the mayor, texts from the police department and reports by citizens who have the time and the inclination to sit through public meetings on Zoom and write them up. (Update: Since publishing this essay, I’ve learned about a free paper called the Medford News Weekly. Despite its name, there’s a lot of Somerville news in it, and the content is mostly press releases. Still, it’s worth keeping an eye on.)

As a longtime journalist and academic who studies the business of news, I want to share some thoughts on what might be done to solve the problem. Over the past few years, I’ve had several conversations with people in Medford about how to fill the gap created by the hollowing-out of our local newspaper. But solving the problem is a daunting task and, frankly, those conversations didn’t lead anywhere. First, though, a bit on how we got here. Continue reading “Together, we can do something about local news coverage in Medford”

A beautifully told story that offers nostalgia about local news but not much hope

The New York Times has published an article about Evan Brandt, the last reporter covering Pottstown, Pennsylvania. His paper, The Mercury, has been decimated by its owner, the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital. It’s a great story, beautifully written by Dan Barry, with superb visuals by Haruka Sakaguchi.

And yet the air of inevitability bugs me. Barry offers nostalgia, not hope. I’m not going to suggest that Brandt quit and start his own local news project — he’s in his 50s, has a kid in college and his wife his sick. But why doesn’t the community get together, start a news project and make Brandt the first hire?

Better yet: Why can’t LNP, the newspaper in nearby Lancaster, which is independently owned and reportedly doing well, hire Brandt for a Pottstown edition? Lancaster is probably a bit too far away to justify firing up the printing presses and the trucks. But a digital edition wouldn’t cost much, and would allow them to expand their paid subscription base — much as The Boston Globe did in Rhode Island.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Margaret Sullivan has written a useful guide to the horrifying decline of local news

What’s happened to local news in our medium-size city north of Boston is a story that could be told in hundreds of communities across the country.

Read the rest at Nieman Lab. And talk about this post on Facebook.

Should Report for America send journalists to chain-owned newspapers?

How much support do newspapers owned by cost-cutting corporate chains deserve? It’s a dilemma. On the one hand, the people who live in communities served by those papers need reliable news and information. On the other hand, subsidizing them with money and resources could be considered a reward for bad behavior.

Last week Report for America, or RFA, announced that it would send 225 journalists to news organizations in 46 states and Puerto Rico during 2020-’21. With local news in crisis even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a welcome piece of good news. Most of the organizations that will host these young journalists are either independent or part of small chains, and they include a sizable number of public broadcasters, nonprofit start-ups, the Associated Press and the like. Locally, The Bay State Banner will be getting a reporter.

But in looking over the list, I also noticed a substantial number of newspapers that are part of corporate chains. By my count, 15 papers are part of McClatchy, which recently declared bankruptcy after staggering under unsupportable debt for many years. Twelve are part of Gannett, recently merged with GateHouse Media; both chains are notorious for slashing their newsrooms, and not just since COVID-19 reared its head. One reporter is even going to Cleveland.com, the website of The Plain Dealer and the scene of a recent union-busting effort on the part of Advance Publications.

As I said, it’s a dilemma. If you attempt to punish chain owners for squeezing out revenues at the expense of newsroom jobs, you wind up hurting communities.

I contacted Report for America co-founders Steven Waldman, who serves as RFA’s president, and Charles Sennott, who’s the chief executive officer and editor of The GroundTruth Project, of which RFA is a part. Their answers have been lightly edited. First Waldman:

My general answer is: Yes, half of our placements are in nonprofit, and others are in locally owned commercial entities. But we do indeed have some placements in newspapers that are owned by chains. Our primary standard is: Will this help the community? So we have on occasion accepted applications from newspapers with the problems you mentioned if we were convinced that they would use the reporter to better serve their readers. If we can be a positive force in helping those newspapers tip more in the direction of great journalism, we view that as a real positive step…. [Ellipses Waldman’s.] In effect, we’re creating hybrid nonprofit/for-profit models that provide even better local journalismBy the way, we have always had newspapers like that in the program, as part of the mix. That’s not new.

Now Sennott:

One of the stronger papers in our original Report for America class of 2018 was the Lexington Herald-Leader, a McClatchy paper in Kentucky. They pitched us on reopening the Pikeville Bureau in the heart of coal country in Eastern Kentucky, a bureau they had been forced to close 10 years earlier. They felt they were not serving well the community there. We placed RFA corps member Will Wright there and he became one of our true stars, breaking a story on a water crisis in which tens of thousands of residents did not have access to clean drinking water. His reporting turned a spotlight on this issue and helped the community force the county officials to repair the work and restore the access to clean drinking water. I went to Pikeville to work alongside Will Wright on this story and saw his incredible impact in that community with my own eyes. That is what we care about, serving the communities in these under-covered corners of America. And that’s why we have always been proud of our work with the Lexington Herald and why we did not rule out McClatchy as a place for us to look for RFA host newsroom partnerships, even if it is a chain that is going through hard economic times.

We did an enterprise project with Will Wright and two other reporters in rural Appalachia. Here is a link to the project, which was also featured on GroundTruth, as home of RFA:

https://thegroundtruthproject.org/projects/stirring-the-waters/

Also, we got news today of a full-page ad was taken out by Republicans and Democrats thanking McClatchy for its service to Kentucky.

And adding a poetic new chapter to the story, Will Wright has been accepted by The New York Times for its very competitive fellowship. And no, we are not leaving them high and dry. In this new class, we will have three journalists (two reporters and one photographer) at the Lexington Herald.

Sending an RFA journalist to a Gannett paper isn’t going to lead directly to a layoff. More public-accountability coverage is in everyone’s interests. And the chains, unfortunately, have a monopoly in many parts of the country, so it’s not like RFA could send someone to another news organization in that community.

Overall, I think RFA is doing the right thing — even if it makes me a bit queasy.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

There’s no reason to rule out a government bailout of local journalism

Photo (cc) 2014 by MIKI Yoshihito

I’m sure I’ll be writing a lot in the weeks and months ahead about whether and how government should provide a boost to local journalism — in crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, and now on its knees.

Recently I reviewed Victor Pickard’s new book, “Democracy without Journalism?,” which is, among other things, a call for public assistance. Pickard’s argument for fundamental media reform and increased public investment in journalism was relevant before the pandemic, and is even more so now.

Today I want to touch briefly on a back-and-forth between Politico media columnist Jack Shafer and Mike Blinder, publisher of Editor & Publisher, a leading trade magazine for the newspaper business. Shafer is against a government bailout, arguing that newspapers have been in decline for decades, and that the pandemic is merely speeding up the end game. Blinder, naturally, is for public assistance. First, a bit of Shafer:

It might make sense for the government to assist otherwise healthy companies — such as the airlines — that need a couple of months of breathing space from the viral shock to recover and are in a theoretical position to repay government loans sometime soon. But it’s quite another thing to fling a life buoy to a drowning swimmer who doesn’t have the strength to hold on. Newspapers are such a drowning industry.

Now Blinder:

Perhaps the problem with Shafer is that he still thinks a newspaper is a singular paper product as he lives in a binary world where you either work for a newspaper or a “pure play” digital product like Politico or Slate, where he previously worked. Come on, Jack, you know better. Just because news publishers proudly keep the word “paper” in their branding does not mean that the end product must be printed on pulp.

Although I disagree with some of what Shafer says, he does make one good point — that it would be outrageous to reward chain newspaper owners that have been hollowing out their coverage for years so they could squeeze out a few drops of profit for their hedge-fund owners and corporate shareholders. At the very least, I wouldn’t want to see any money go to Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group or to Gannett unless it is matched by investments in journalism that those companies have, up to this point, shown no inclination to make.

We should also acknowledge that indirect government funding is already propping up a lot of the local and regional news infrastructure. Nonprofit media such as public broadcasters and local digital news organizations like the New Haven Independent, Voice of San Diego, MinnPost and Texas Tribune thrive in part because of tax advantages that amount to a government subsidy. (Public broadcasters receive some direct government funding, too.) Major newspapers may take the same route in the years ahead, with The Salt Lake Tribune leading the way.

My own view is that local news organizations, including newspapers, should be eligible for government bailout money just as other businesses are. As Shafer notes, there is always the problem of journalistic independence when the government gets involved. But structures can be set up that insulate news organizations from interference.

Former NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller tells Shafer that the current governing structure for NPR has created an “untenable structure for supporting independent journalism.” But even though NPR often strikes me as overly cautious and deferential to power, it is also our leading source of free, high-quality journalism.

We need a variety of different business models for local news — for-profit, nonprofit, cooperative and even volunteer. At the moment, most local news is based on the for-profit model, and that’s what’s in danger of being destroyed by the pandemic.

Right now, newspapers — print and digital — need a bailout. We can worry about what sort of relationship the government should have with the news business once the crisis has abated.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Gannett announces COVID-19-related furloughs and other cost reductions

The already-barebones Gannett newspaper chain has announced massive COVID-19-related cost reductions through June, according to a memo to the staff from Maribel Perez Wadsworth, president of news and publisher of USA Today.

Employees making more than $38,000 will be furloughed for five days during each of the three months. Wadsworth says she will take a 25% pay cut, although I don’t know what she’s making now.

Wadsworth’s portfolio includes Gannett’s local newspapers and websites, including the former GateHouse properties in Eastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Here is a list. The memo, which I obtained from a trusted source, was accompanied by an FAQ, which you can read here. The full text of her email is as follows:

All,

Let me first acknowledge all the incredible work you’ve done in the face of this pandemic that is, without a doubt, also taking a toll on your personal lives. Our strong audience and subscriber response this month show how much people rely on our news and information to make key, critical decisions that impact themselves and their loved ones.

As you’ve seen the havoc wreaked on our nation’s and the world’s economy, so too, is the uncertainty around the coronavirus outbreak increasing financial pressure on our own company. As businesses close and live events cancel across the globe for the next few months, we are seeing many advertisers and sponsors reducing or even eliminating their marketing spend. With the current pressures and so much uncertainty, it’s difficult to chart our next steps for more than the next few months.

To meet this unprecedented challenge, we are instituting a series of immediate cost reductions, including a furlough program in April, May and June across our division.

We do not take this action lightly; we know furloughs cause hardship. All of Gannett’s divisions are approaching this challenge differently, but after careful consideration of other options, we felt this was the best approach for our team.

Importantly, we will not furlough employees who earn less than $38,000 annually, and different policies will apply to a few teams whose business was impacted more severely by recent events. We are asking union representatives for their support of the furloughs as well. Senior leaders whose absence would put our integration timeline and key business operations at risk have agreed to a pay cut in lieu of a furlough (but equal to the amount each month). I will be taking a 25 percent reduction in salary during the quarter.

Furloughs will be for five business days each month of the second quarter. Exempt employees must schedule each furlough for the full business week, while non-exempt employees can be scheduled by the week or in full-day increments. Managers will approve furlough schedules to balance business needs during this time.

Your supervisor will be sharing more specifics and working with you to schedule your furlough as soon as possible. The attached FAQ should also help answer many of the questions you might have. You will see an invite from me momentarily for an Ask Me Anything session this afternoon at 2 p.m. Eastern. Please join if you can, and please submit any questions in advance to xxx.

We will get through this unprecedented challenge together. We will emerge stronger. We will continue to do important, impactful, essential journalism to serve our readers and communities. I am deeply grateful to each of you.

Sincerely,
Maribel

Talk about this post on Facebook.

From coast to coast, local online news outlets dive into the COVID-19 story

Photo 1909 by Lewis Hines

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

From the Berkshires to the bayou, from the Pacific Northwest to southeastern Massachusetts, the COVID-19 pandemic is tearing through local newspapers.

Already under pressure from changes in technology and the decline of advertising, alternative weeklies and small dailies are teetering on the brink. Reporters have been laid off. Print editions have been suspended or cut back. Donations are being sought. And journalists everywhere are wondering if they have a future.

For the past 15 years or so, local, digital-only start-ups have stood out as a countervailing trend compared to the overall decline of the newspaper business. Though small in both number and scope, these entrepreneurial news organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, have provided coverage that their communities would otherwise lack. Yet they, too, have been battered by the novel coronavirus.

“They’re stretching their journalistic capacity,” said Chris Krewson, executive director of the 200-member LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, at a virtual conference last week sponsored by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, where I’m a faculty member. “Everyone’s seeing incredible jumps in traffic and audience and [newsletter] open rates and things like that. And the volume of stories has never been higher.

“At the same time,” he added, “the sorts of things that everyone has built their business around, certainly since 2010, are a challenge. You have a business built around where to go and what to do, and there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do. So you’re looking at the first waves of cancellations from advertisers.”

Over the weekend, I emailed a number of editors and publishers at free, digital-only news outlets to see how they were faring. Though they all said they are pushing ahead, they added that the economic and logistical challenges of covering the COVID-19 story have proved daunting. (Please click here for a complete transcript of our conversation.)

At least for the moment, the nonprofits have an advantage, since their funding — from grants, foundations and donations — tends to be in place months in advance.

“We operate on a tight budget, and are always scrambling for money for our long-term sustainability,” says Paul Bass, who runs the nonprofit New Haven Independent and WNHH Community Radio. “But we seek to set our budget each year at a level that can be supported by current deposits and a few multi-year commitments by our deepest-pocket long-term supporters, so that people know 12 months at a time that they have a job and the lights stay on.”

Dylan Smith, publisher of the nonprofit Tucson Sentinel in Arizona, worries about the long-term effect on his site — but adds that, for now, the reaction has been positive.

“We’ve been sent quite a number of three-figure donations out of the blue, and seen a substantial uptick in people signing up to contribute monthly,” he says. “That community support has really been heartening. Not only will it help keep the lights on, but the kind words and cold hard cash we’ve gotten let us know we’re doing something meaningful to help.”

By contrast, The Batavian, a for-profit site that serves Genesee County in western New York, is scrambling, according to publisher Howard Owens. “Two top-tier advertisers have dropped,” he says. “Our revenue is 95% advertising. I expect we’ll take a big hit before this is over.” He adds: “I’m more worried about my business’ ability to survive than I am worried about my own health. We have a PressPatron button on our site if anybody wishes to make a contribution.”

In at least one instance, the crisis has forced a publisher to postpone collecting any money at all. Jennifer Lord Paluzzi, a veteran journalist who recently launched her second start-up, Grafton Common, in the Worcester area, was hoping to ask for donations, but has decided to wait until the pandemic subsides.

“I was about to put a tip jar on my site that people could just put money in and help fund it,” she said at the Northeastern event. “But with everything that’s going on right now, with businesses closing, I’m like, OK, we’re going to skip the tip jar and entertain everybody.”

The need for social distancing may prove challenging to The Mendocino Voice, a for-profit site in California that is in the process of shifting to an employee- and member-owned co-op. The founders, publisher Kate Maxwell and managing editor Adrian Fernandez Baumann, had envisioned a series of meetings across Mendocino County to whip up enthusiasm and to refine the details of what the co-op would look like. But now they have to figure out other ways to do that.

“The challenge is how to work with the funders and re-create our plan for a series of community forums and member meetings virtually,” Maxwell says. “However, we cover a large area and are always looking for ways to better reach remote readers, so in the end this shift could be very valuable to refining the tools we use to engage with our readers and strengthen our membership campaign.”

Despite such difficulties, the journalists I reached all expressed enthusiasm for covering what may prove to be the biggest story of our lifetime.

“As an organization that focuses a lot of our effort on covering state and local government, it’s a massive story for us,” says Andrew Putz, editor of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit MinnPost. “I just looked, and we did 34 stories in the last week tied in some way to Minnesota’s response to the pandemic. So to answer your question more directly: We’re throwing everything we have at it.”

Adds Smith: “We’re working our asses off. I think I had 14 or 15 bylines in one day last week. And that’s not counting multiple updates to some stories.”

Although most of these small news organizations have offices, working at home is nothing new. Both Putz and Smith say they’ve been communicating with reporters via Slack. “We’ve been working remotely for a decade already,” says Smith. “I have a couple of reporters I haven’t even seen face-to-face yet in 2020.”

And all agree that health and safety come first. “If they feel like they must attend a meeting/press conference/interview,” says Putz of his reporters, “we’ve asked them to exercise their judgment — and to make sure they know that there’s no story that’s worth them jeopardizing their health.”

For the time being, Owens has abandoned his office in downtown Batavia. He says he and his wife, Billie Owens, the site’s editor, have an agreement that neither can leave the house without the other’s permission. Their one staff member as well as freelancers are all working from home.

“It’s not just about keeping them/us safe,” he says. “It’s about flattening the curve. We need to give our government, health-care systems and private sector time to build capacity to deal with a pandemic that will last for a year or two.”

The exception is Bass, who has not yet stopped his reporters (except for one in his 70s) from covering stories in person. He says his journalists have been instructed to stay six feet away from people they’re interviewing and photographing, and he will continue to reassess.

“My guess is, especially as government meetings shift online, we will be doing fewer in-person interviews,” Bass says. “Also, math suggests that some of us will get sick, which will certainly diminish our reporting capacity. But for now it’s full steam ahead, with fingers crossed. We love our community and feel we have an important role in strengthening it.”

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Despite Biden’s big night, Mendocino County remains firmly with Bernie

At the Ukiah Brewing Company. Photo by Adrian Fernandez Baumann.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

UKIAH, Calif. — About 15 people had gathered on the second floor of the Ukiah Brewing Company. The television in the corner was tuned to CNN, and Sen. Bernie Sanders was speaking. This was a pro-Sanders crowd. Nearly everyone stopped what they were doing so they could listen.

Then the band downstairs started playing, and that was the end of that.

I’m here this week learning about The Mendocino Voice, an online news organization started three and a half years ago that is in the process of moving toward a cooperative model of ownership — an innovative step that could help ensure the project’s future. “We are going to be owned by our readers and our staff,” publisher Kate Maxwell told those on hand. “We think that’s the best way to be sustainable and locally owned.”

The Super Tuesday party, which drew a total of 25 to 30 people, was organized by the Voice as a way of bringing the community together to watch not just the presidential results but to find out who had won the primary elections for the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. There are five supervisors, and three of the seats were contested.

There’s no question, though, that most people were mainly interested in the Democratic presidential primary. Sanders won California easily on a night when the chatter was about former Vice President Joe Biden’s emergence as the clear (though hardly dominant) frontrunner. I was told that Mendocino County, a two-hour drive north of San Francisco, is even more pro-Sanders than the rest of the state. That was certainly true at the Ukiah Brewing Company, where the folks I spoke with expressed their enthusiasm for Bernie over burgers and beer.

“I think the possibility of having a socialist Democrat in the White House is really exciting,” said Rayna Grace, citing Sanders’ “solidarity with the Palestinian people” as well as his support for Medicare for All and for canceling student debt. Her companion, Silver, who declined to tell me her last name, added, “I’m just excited to see a candidate who reflects my radical values.”

Even the only non-Sanders supporter I spoke with said he preferred Sanders to the candidate he actually cast a ballot for — Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “I thought Warren is electable. I don’t know if Bernie is electable,” said John Haschak, a member of the board of supervisors. “Maybe my political calculation is a little off, but we can’t have four more years of Trump.”

Unfortunately for Warren, Haschak’s political calculation turned out to be more than a little off. Warren suffered the worst of what has been a series of bad nights for her, as she came in third in her home state of Massachusetts, behind Biden and Sanders. (WGBH News Senior Political Editor Peter Kadzis breaks down the Bay State results here.) In just a few months, Warren has gone from being the frontrunner to having to do some serious fence-mending with her constituents.

Like many people, I’ve visited California’s urban centers of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. But this is the first time I’ve been in the rural north. The population of Mendocino County is just under 90,000. Yet, geographically, it’s about two-thirds the size of Connecticut (population 3.5 million) and larger than Delaware (nearly a million).

As is the case in many other places, Mendocino County suffers from a dearth of reliable local journalism. Most of the papers in the county — including The Ukiah Daily Journal, the only daily — were absorbed into the MediaNews Group conglomerate years ago, and have been systemically gutted by the chain’s hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital.

Maxwell and Managing Editor Adrian Fernandez Baumann, the Voice’s only full-time staff members, are themselves former MediaNews employees. Though their office — a tiny second-floor room that they rent from a low-power FM radio station — is in the inland city of Ukiah, the county seat, they have positioned the Voice as a county-wide news service. As such, they regularly drive two hours to Fort Bragg, on the Pacific coast, as well as to other parts of the county.

This is weed-and-wine country. The “cannabis economy,” as Baumann calls it, is dominated by so-called back-to-landers, hippies and former hippies who moved to the area in the 1960s. So it’s no surprise that Sanders is the favorite here.

Yes, I did meet a few non-enthusiasts. Before the party, Baumann and I talked with voters outside a polling station at the county offices, where we encountered an older couple who’d cast their ballots for Biden and a volunteer firefighter who’d taken a Republican ballot and voted for President Donald Trump. Overwhelmingly, though, the folks we met had voted for Sanders.

“We’ve been diehard Bernie supporters since the last election,” Moriah McGill told us.

Given Biden’s strong performance across the country Tuesday, it’s no exaggeration to say that voters like McGill, Grace and Silver saved the Sanders campaign. Whether that will be enough to stop Biden is a question for another day.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Burgers, beers and journalism: An experiment in civic engagement

Photo (cc) 2012 by Ruocaled

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Can a news organization help to support itself by opening a café, bar and wedding venue? It’s a good question, but here’s a better one: Can such a gathering place lead to the revival of civic engagement and, thus, to renewed interest in local journalism?

The New York Times last week reported on an interesting experiment taking place at The Big Bend Sentinel of Marfa, Texas. The paper was acquired last year by two former New Yorkers, Maisie Crow and Max Kabat, who quickly found themselves facing the challenge of paying the bills in an era of shrinking ad revenues. Their solution was to renovate a former bar and transform it into a newsroom and café. The revenues, Crow said, would be used to expand the Sentinel’s coverage, explaining that “we wanted to expand the potential.”

But at a time when the decline of civic life is leading to diminishing interest in the day-to-day goings-on that are the staple of local newspapers, bringing journalists and the community together in a common space could help remind residents of why news matters. Indeed, Abbie Perrault, the Sentinel’s managing editor, told the Times that the shared space is “a great way to keep my finger on the pulse and get new leads and find stories.”

The Sentinel is offering a fresh take on an idea that nearly got off the ground a decade ago. That’s when Matt DeRienzo, then the 34-year-old publisher of The Register Citizen in Torrington, Connecticut, was opening up his newsroom to the public with the encouragement of John Paton, an innovative executive who was briefly the toast of the newspaper business.

As The New York Times wrote back then, members of the public could visit The Register Citizen’s Newsroom Café for coffee and muffins and to use the paper’s archives for free. “Matt’s taking his audience and making it a colleague,” Paton was quoted as saying. “A building with open doors, with no walls, is the brick-and-mortar metaphor for how the web works.”

DeRienzo was soon named editor of all of the Journal Register Co. chain’s Connecticut newspapers, including its flagship, the New Haven Register. I interviewed him around that time, and he was brimming with ideas. The company sold off its hulking plant by I-95, and DeRienzo began making plans for an open newsroom on the Yale side of the New Haven Green.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Journal Register was merged with another chain, MediaNews Group, and the resulting behemoth was dubbed Digital First Media — an ironic moniker that paid tribute to Paton’s oft-repeated mantra, “digital first,” but that soon proved it was dedicated mainly to squeezing out profits for the benefit of its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital. Paton left. DeRienzo left. And the idea of local journalism reinvented around open newsrooms and public participation faded away. (I told the full story of Digital First’s rise and fall in an earlier WGBH News commentary.)

“It elevated the awareness and reputation of the newspaper and the people who worked in the newsroom,” DeRienzo said of the Torrington experiment in a Facebook discussion last week. “It improved transparency and trust with readers. Our audience grew, and our digital revenue grew.”

Nearly a generation ago, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam wrote in his landmark book “Bowling Alone” that newspaper readership correlates strongly with civic engagement. People who vote in local elections, take part in volunteer activities, attend religious services or engage in any number of other activities are also more likely to read the paper. “Newspaper readers,” he wrote, “are machers and schmoozers.

Which brings us back to The Big Bend Sentinel. The local news crisis has multiple causes, technological change and corporate greed being foremost among them. But, fundamentally, it’s also about declining interest in what the school board is up to, whether the city council will approve a new liquor license and other quotidian matters.

News organizations that hope to survive and thrive can’t settle for merely covering civic life — they have to teach their communities the importance of local news so that people will start paying attention and realize that what the mayor is doing is likely to have more of an effect on their families than anything that is taking place in Washington.

Such journalism is sometimes derisively called “eating your broccoli.” So kudos to the Sentinel for reimagining the intersection of journalism and audience engagement more along the lines of a cheeseburger and a beer. And look! Here comes the bride!

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of the town name of Marfa, Texas.

Talk about this post on Facebook.