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.

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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.

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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

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Can hopes for local news co-ops ever turn into reality? A conversation with Tom Stites

After nearly a decade of attempting to raise money and spark interest in the idea of a cooperatively owned community news site, a group of volunteers in Haverhill, Mass., announced this month that they were shutting down.

The site, which would have been known as Haverhill Matters, was to be a pilot for the Banyan Project, the work of veteran journalist Tom Stites, who hoped to seed co-ops in news deserts across the country.

A former top editor at The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, as well as the founder of several print and online publications, Stites hasn’t yet given up on his idea. But he admits that he’s frustrated by the lack of interest from prospective funders.

“I’ve been heartbroken every time I’ve seen a journalistically robust digital site go out of business,” he says, “knowing that it might have easily made the conversion to co-op if Banyan had had the funding to support them.”

I followed the Banyan Project’s efforts to launch Haverhill Matters from the beginning, writing about it in my 2013 book on new forms of online community journalism, The Wired City, and over the years for Nieman Lab and for my blog, Media Nation. (Click here for a complete index of my Banyan coverage.)

I reached out to Stites with the idea of having a conversation that would mark the end of a long journey — except it might not be over yet. News co-ops remain an interesting idea that could help fill some of the gaps created by the failures of legacy media. A few communities here and there are trying the concept out, from Mendocino, California, to Boston and Cambridge, to rural Maine.

Here’s a lightly edited version of our interview over email.

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In Haverhill, WHAV lives — but a long-planned co-op for news folds up shop

The Haverhill riverfront. Photo (cc) 2008 by Fletcher6.

For some years now, Haverhill, a city north of Boston, has been the home of two innovative local-news projects.

One, WHAV Radio, ran into fundraising problems last fall and was in danger of going under by Thanksgiving. I wrote about that for WGBH News. The other, Haverhill Matters, was intended as the pilot for the Banyan Project, an effort to establish cooperatively owned news sites around the country.

The committee organizing Haverhill Matters recently announced that it was shutting down. More on that below. But first, the good news from WHAV, whose president and general manager, Tim Coco, is soldiering on. (Disclosure: I made a small donation.) WHAV is a nonprofit with a low-power FM signal at 97.9 FM, a streaming internet presence and a robust website. Coco told me in an email:

Although I have been a board member and chairman of nonprofits over the years, they’ve all had endowments. I’m still getting used to actually operating a nonprofit without a safety net. One lesson learned this time around is crises never end and fundraising mode has to be perpetual.

During this latest episode, Haverhill Mayor Jim Fiorentini called me and predicted I wouldn’t give up. He called it a “labor of love” and I responded, “No, it’s just a labor.” I guess he was correct.

I also learned WHAV has friends it didn’t know it had. A large, regional contractor, Early Construction not only stepped up with contributions, but challenged others to do the same. Early is a business that bids on public contracts and has no need to advertise. Dick and his wife, Mary Rose, Early believe in what WHAV is doing and their words and deeds helped motivate me.

One existing underwriter, Covanta, represented by Mark VanWeelden, stepped up with technical support and ideas. He renewed his company’s pledge on the condition … that I paid myself.

Another great supporter turned out to be former Mayor Jim Rurak and his wife Kathy. The original WHAV AM 1490 went away during his time as mayor and he was advised at that time (1995), it was impossible — technically, legally, financially — to bring it back. He brought more contacts and resources to the table.

For me, it was like the end of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” where residents of Bedford Falls come to the aid of George Bailey. It was truly heartwarming.

Beyond this, I cut costs —pretty much eliminating live weeknight programming that didn’t support the local news effort. I also renegotiated credit card rates so more of listener/reader donations came through. The membership drive — particularly asking for monthly, recurring donations — delivered almost 50 percent more income than a year ago. It isn’t enough, but it is a base WHAV will build on.

The idea behind the Banyan Project is to set up news co-ops similar to food co-ops or credit unions — that is, news sites owned by the members, who could join by paying a fee or contributing labor, perhaps in the form of a neighborhood blog.

The person behind Banyan is Tom Stites, a veteran editor who has worked at newspapers such as The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. I hope to have more from Stites in the days ahead. For one thing, I’m interested in knowing whether he plans to try out his concept elsewhere. But for now, here is a recent email sent to supporters of Haverhill Matters from John Cuneo, who chaired the local board of directors:

Dear Lover of Independent News,

On behalf of the Board of Directors of Haverhill Matters Cooperative, I write to inform you that we are regretfully closing up shop. We worked hard seeking various routes to build a new cooperative business model for a local news and information service.

As print journalism withers and digital journalism struggles, testing many different forms, the prize of an informed community is ever more important. Let no one mistake the demise of our efforts to signal that the application of a coop business model to local journalism isn’t feasible. Aside from our devoted mentor [a reference to Stites], none us are journalists; none of us are experienced cooperators. This is the more likely cause.

We thank all who rendered us support in many forms, moral, logistical, monetary and otherwise. We are very grateful for this. We urge all those working to build platforms for democratically shared local information and news not to be discouraged. Our goal deserves the greatest persistence. We’ll see you on the path.

Thanks again so much for your shared interest.

Cuneo did not respond to an email I sent to him seeking comment.

I’ve written a lot about news efforts in Haverhill over the years. For an index, please click here.

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Making sense of the Portland Press Herald’s elimination of its Monday print edition

Those of us who have followed the transition of newspapers from print to free digital and, now, to paid digital have long predicted that seven-day print will eventually morph into one weekend print edition supplemented by digital the rest of the week.

Last week the Portland Press Herald announced it would take a step in that direction, eliminating its Monday print edition starting in March. Like many papers, the Press Herald has been emphasizing paid digital, so a cutback on print should be seen as an inevitable next step rather than the beginning of the end.

Still, I was curious about the decision to cut print on Monday. Among those of us who follow such things, the speculation usually involves eliminating the Saturday paper, or publishing the big Sunday paper on Saturday as an all-weekend edition. (The Sunday edition of the Press Herald is called the Maine Sunday Telegram.)

According to the Press Herald’s latest filing with the Alliance for Audited Media, the Saturday print edition is slightly larger than the Monday edition (25,450 to 25,358). The Saturday edition, though, gets an artificial boost — the Press Herald offers a four-day Thursday-through-Sunday print subscription as a cheaper alternative to seven-day (soon to be six-day) print. Paid Sunday print circulation is 40,091.

Still, anyone who’s paged through the Monday edition of a local daily newspaper knows that advertising on that day is virtually non-existent. So, for a variety of reasons, the Press Herald probably made the right choice.

Also, Kris Olson offers this:

The Press Herald isn’t the first daily paper to cut print days. It’s worth watching, though, because the owner, Reade Brower (who also owns most of the daily newspapers in Maine as well as a few weeklies), seems committed to coming up with a long-term strategy for economic sustainability. Press Herald publisher Lisa DeSisto tells her paper that the Monday move will enable the paper to avoid cutting staff.

Perhaps he might consider emulating the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which last year eliminated print except on Sundays and gave its paid subscribers free iPads so they could continue to read the paper online.

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From the local-news crisis to Trump’s lies, 2019 was a year to put behind us

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2019 by Seth Anderson.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The devolution of Tucker Carlson. The MIT Media Lab’s entanglement with career sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. The ever-present threat to free speech. And, above all, the ongoing corporate-fueled crisis afflicting local news.

These are the themes that emerged in my most-read commentaries for WGBH News from the past year. We live in difficult times, and my list might provoke pessimism. But given that four of my top 10 are about the meltdown of local news, I’m at least somewhat optimistic. People really care about this stuff. And that’s the first step toward coming up with possible solutions. So let’s get to it.

10. Whatever happened to Tucker Carlson? (March 12). When Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson began his journalistic career in the mid-1990s, he built a reputation as a smart, unconventional conservative, a stylish writer and (as I can attest) a charming lunch companion. Today he is a racist, sexist hate-monger and a full-throated apologist for President Trump. What happened? Although I can’t read Carlson’s mind, it would appear that he values fame and fortune over principle. In that sense, Carlson is a metaphor for nearly the entire conservative movement, with the few conservatives of conscience having been exiled to #NeverTrump irrelevance.

9. Corporate newspaper chains’ race to the bottom (Jan. 16). One year ago, the cost-slashing newspaper chain Gannett was fighting off a possible takeover by Digital First Media (now MediaNews Group), owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and generally regarded as the worst of the worst. Gannett avoided that grim fate. But by the end of the year, Gannett had merged with another bottom-feeder, GateHouse Media. The first order of business: Cutting another $400 million or so from papers that had already been hollowed out, including titles that serve more than 100 cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

8. The move from no-profit to nonprofit journalism (May 15). A brief period of hope greeted Paul Huntsman after he bought The Salt Lake Tribune in 2016. Instead, the cutting continued, as Huntsman discovered that 21st-century newspaper economics were more of a challenge than he’d imagined. Then, last spring, he announced that he would seek to reorganize the Tribune as a nonprofit entity. Several months later, the IRS approved his application. Nonprofit ownership is not a panacea — the Tribune still must take in more money than it spends. But by removing the pressure for quarterly profits and keeping the chains at bay, Huntsman might point the way for other beleaguered newspaper owners.

7. Fact-checking and the dangers of false equivalence (Sept. 18). We have never had a president who spews falsehoods like President Trump. Much of what he says can be chalked up to old-fashioned lying; some of it consists of conspiracy theories from the fever swamps of the far right that he might actually believe. Fact-checkers at The Washington Post, CNN, PolitiFact and other news organizations have diligently kept track, with the Post reporting several weeks ago that Trump had made more than 15,000 “false or misleading claims” during his presidency. Yet the media all too often remain obsessed with balance in this most unbalanced of times. And thus Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, are inevitably held to a higher standard, being branded as liars for what are merely rhetorical excesses or even disputed facts.

6. Yes, millennials are paying attention to the news (July 24). Millennials are often, and wrongly, caricatured as self-absorbed and caring about little other than where their next slice of avocado toast is coming from. It’s not true. A study by the Knight Foundation, which surveyed 1,600 young adults, “shows that 88 percent of people ages 18-34 access news at least weekly, including 53 percent who do so every day.” The findings matched what I’ve seen in many years of teaching journalism students: they’re dubious about the news as a curated package, but they’re well-informed, highly quality-conscious and not wedded to the notion of loyalty to specific news brands. Can we put them in charge now, please?

5. Stop letting Trump take up residence inside your head (Jan. 2). I kicked off 2019 with a list of five ideas for de-Trumpifying your life. Unfortunately, the president’s bizarre, hateful rants and policies can’t be ignored completely — but surely we can save our outrage for his truly important outbursts. Looking back, I think my best piece of advice was to pay more attention to non-Trump news, especially at the local level. We live in communities, and making them work better is a great antidote to our dysfunctional president.

4. Post-Jeffrey Epstein, some questions for the MIT Media Lab (Sept. 11). Joi Ito, a celebrated star in the media world, was forced to resign as director of the MIT Media Lab after his modified limited hangout about his financial entanglements with serial rapist Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide while in jail, turned out to be far more extensive than he had originally admitted. That, in turn, brought the Media Lab itself under scrutiny. In the post-Ito, post-Epstein era, questions remained about exactly how dependent the lab had become on Epstein’s money — and whether it was really producing valuable work or if some of it was smoke and mirrors aimed at impressing its mega-wealthy funders.

3. Don’t blame the internet for the decline of local journalism (Nov. 27). Following yet another round on academic Twitter arguing that we need new forms of journalism in response to the damage that the internet had done to local news, I was mad as hell and couldn’t take it anymore. Yes, technology has done tremendous harm to the business model that traditionally paid for the news. But equally to blame is the rise of chain ownership intent on bleeding newspapers dry before discarding them and moving on. From Woburn, Massachusetts, to New Haven, Connecticut, independent local news organizations are thriving despite the very real economic pressures created by the rise of Craigslist, Google and Facebook. Local news isn’t dying — it’s being murdered by corporate greed.

2. Calling out New England’s enemies of free expression (July 2). Since 1998, I’ve been writing an annual Fourth of July round-up of outrages against the First Amendment called the New England Muzzle Awards. For many years, the Muzzles were hosted by the late, great Boston Phoenix. Since 2013, they’ve made their home at WGBH News. The 2019 list included school officials in Vermont who tried to silence the high school newspaper (and lost) and a police chief in Connecticut whose officers arrested a journalist during a Black Lives Matter protest to prevent her from doing her job. And don’t miss the 2019 Campus Muzzles, by Harvey Silverglate, Monika Greco and Nathan McGuire, which focus on free-speech issues on college campuses.

1. GateHouse decimates its already-decimated newspapers (June 5). As I noted above, the Gannett newspaper chain managed to fend off the depredations of Alden Global Capital. But Alden, Gannett and GateHouse Media danced around each other all year. In the spring, GateHouse, already known for taking a bonesaw to its newspapers, eliminated about 170 positions at its papers nationwide and merged 50 of its smaller weeklies in Greater Boston into 18, a surefire way to undermine customer loyalty to the local paper. “We remain positive about the future for local media but certainly acknowledge that the business model for community news is under pressure,” GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis told me. But by year’s end, GateHouse had merged with Gannett, Davis was gone — and the cutting continued.

So what will 2020 bring? Call me crazy, but I think we’re going to see some good news on the local-journalism front. As for what will happen nationally, I think I can safely predict that the political press will continue to focus on polls and campaign-trail controversies at the expense of substance, continuing a trend documented recently by my colleagues Aleszu Bajak, John Wihbey and me at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2020.

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