A local news experiment in Haverhill may fall victim to economic woes

Tim Coco in the WHAV studio. Photo (cc) 2014 by Dan Kennedy.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

At a time when local news is in danger of being snuffed out by corporate chain ownership, WHAV Radio in Haverhill has established itself as a worthy alternative. Built by a journalist and advertising executive named Tim Coco, the independent nonprofit provides news and community information over the air and online.

Now, though, the station is in crisis. Annual costs have risen to about $300,000, considerably more than the $200,000 Coco — who runs the station without a salary — has been able to generate in revenue. If there isn’t a turnaround by Thanksgiving, he says, the station may cease operations.

“Our current membership drive isn’t gaining much traction,” Coco said via email. “Some cite the lack of tax deductibility with higher allowed standard deductions. Our major sponsors are as much as four months late in fulfilling pledges, and we have lost some others as they merge with larger organizations.” (Click here for my full Q&A with Coco.)

WHAV traces its Haverhill roots to the years after World War II, when the station was founded by The Haverhill Gazette, then an independent daily newspaper. Coco fell in love with the station when he was a high school student and began covering news there. The morning DJ in those years was the future television personality Tom Bergeron, who has come home on several occasions to help Coco with fundraising drives.

The original WHAV went off the air in 2002, but Coco acquired the call letters and began operating it as an internet station in 2004. Ten years later he ramped up his ambitions, reorganizing it as a nonprofit and, in 2016, adding a low-power FM signal at 97.9 FM. The station features news, community call-in shows and classic-hits music.

WHAV’s expansion coincided with the shrinkage of the city’s newspapers. Today The Haverhill Gazette is a weekly that is part of the daily Eagle-Tribune, headquartered in nearby North Andover. Their corporate owner is CNHI, a national chain of daily and weekly newspapers based in Montgomery, Alabama. The papers no longer have an office in Haverhill.

Although you couldn’t call Haverhill a “news desert,” the term used to describe communities without any news coverage, there is no question that WHAV has helped fill a gap that widened as the city’s newspapers reduced their presence. (In 2013 I wrote about WHAV and Haverhill’s newspapers as part of an assessment of the city’s media. In 2014 I recorded a video interview with Coco.)

“The need for a vibrant, competitive and thorough local news source was clear,” Coco said. “These have been WHAV’s goals in providing expanded online coverage with text, photographs and streaming audio at WHAV.net in 2014, simultaneous postings on all major social media, cable television affiliates and the permitting and launch of 97.9 WHAV-FM in 2016. The restoration of WHAV on radio also returned local news twice-an-hour weekdays, weather, community calendar every hour around the clock, a live morning show, local talk and live broadcasts of city council and school committee meetings and all Haverhill High School football games — home and away.”

And WHAV has developed an audience. According to internal metrics that Coco shared with me, some 184,000 unique visitors accessed the station’s website during the past 30 days — an impressive figure given the operation’s small geographic footprint. “Local news is a web traffic driver,” Coco said. “Our original reporting of breaking news, particularly a murder Saturday at a nursing home, drove web numbers to a new high.”

My own interest in Haverhill was originally rooted in a different local news concept — the Banyan Project, an idea developed by Tom Stites, a veteran journalist who has worked as an editor at The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune. Stites hoped to begin cooperatively owned local news sites across the country, starting in Haverhill. Unfortunately, after years in the planning stages, Haverhill Matters, as the site is known, has yet to make it off the launching pad. Here, for instance, is a story I wrote about Banyan for Nieman Lab in 2014. Not much has happened since then.

Coco was originally a member of the steering committee for Haverhill Matters but left in frustration. “I hoped Haverhill Matters and WHAV could launch together — you know, strength in numbers,” he said. “That group got lost in analysis paralysis and never published a single news story. In the end, Haverhill Matters tied up many donors with the promise of an imminent launch. Some are still waiting even though WHAV sure could use their support.”

But the notion that Banyan somehow steered revenues away from WHAV is disputed by John Cuneo, who serves as president of the Haverhill Matters board. “I do not believe we are a threat to WHAV.net,” Cuneo told me, adding that, if anything, WHAV’s presence made it more difficult for Haverhill Matters to raise money. “I wish Tim all success,” Cuneo said. “He’s been very dedicated for many years in successfully bringing local news to Haverhillians.”

Stites, despite multiple setbacks over the years, still remains hopeful that grant money will materialize that would enable the Haverhill co-op to begin covering news. “A new Banyan suitor has appeared,” Stites said. “What was looking like the end of the road might not be the end.” The idea of a news co-op run in a way similar to that of a food co-op or a credit union remains intriguing, and I hope Stites and the Haverhill Matters folks finally get to try it out. But it has been an awfully long time.

As for WHAV, Coco hopes that going public might shake loose some money and allow him to keep covering the news. “The people at the foundations need to give nonprofit, local news radio another look, especially those stations like WHAV that have committed to multimedia approaches and in poorer and, if I may be so bold, undereducated communities,” he said. “It took 20 years to restore WHAV, so it may take time.”

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Some contrary thoughts on the pending closure of Youngstown’s Vindicator

I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I want to sound a note of skepticism over the pending closure of The Vindicator, the only daily newspaper in Youngstown, Ohio. The paper is family-owned, and those who have looked at the situation — including Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab and Lukas I. Alpert of The Wall Street Journal — have noted that the family also owns the NBC and CW television affiliates.

That’s where I think some more reporting needs to be done. It’s been said that the owners couldn’t find a buyer, not even a cost-cutting chain like GateHouse Media. But it strikes me that that would be a dicey proposition given that the old owners would still be able to leverage relationships they’ve built with advertisers for many years in order to crush a paper that they would now see as a competitor.

I don’t know what the union situation is at the TV stations. But I do know that, according to the Journal, the unionized Vindicator employs 144 people. The TV stations could, if they wanted to, add some free web-only local coverage while hiring far fewer than 144 people in order to further put pressure on The Vindicator.

I realize this is a pretty cynical take and that The Vindicator’s business model has no doubt broken down, perhaps irretrievably. But I do think a little more needs to be said about this odd development.

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Some thoughts on those 3,000 lost journalism jobs

The news was shocking. On Monday, Gerry Smith of Bloomberg reported that about 3,000 employees at news organizations have lost their jobs through layoffs or buyouts through the first five months of this year — the worst drop since 2009.

There is nothing good to be said about this. But, in looking over the details, it seems to me that things aren’t quite as bad as they first appear.

First, there is that “worst since 2009” claim. For the first five months of 2009, Smith writes, the job loss came to 7,914 — more than double what we’ve seen this year. Of course, that was in the midst of the Great Recession, a time when the structural problems facing the news business were compounded by economic collapse. The New York Times Co. was even threatening to shut down The Boston Globe, which it then owned. In 2019, journalism job losses have accelerated in the midst of prosperity, which is pretty ominous. Still, things are not nearly as bad as they were 10 years ago.

Second, a large share of those 3,000 lost jobs were at digital-only news organizations whose business model has always been dubious. The Bloomberg story puts the number of lost jobs at 800 at HuffPost and Yahoo and another 250 at BuzzFeed News. Todd Spangler reported for Variety earlier this year that Vice Media had eliminated 250 jobs. So that’s a total of 1,300, or more than 43 percent of the 3,000 lost jobs. Obviously I don’t like to see any jobs eliminated, and I especially don’t like the fact that Facebook’s and Google’s ongoing dominance in digital advertising is crushing free news sites. But in these cases, the job losses should mainly be seen as the day of reckoning finally arriving.

That’s good news — or, rather, the not-so-awful news. The bad news is that many of the other job losses involve local news organizations. Many are owned by gigantic corporate chains such as GateHouse Media, MediaNews Enterprises (formerly Digital First), Gannett and McClatchy, all of which have cut numerous jobs this year. Some are independents, such as The Vindicator of Youngstown, Ohio, which, as Joshua Benton notes at Nieman Lab, couldn’t even find a buyer. Via Brian Stelter, I learned this morning that the weekly Katy Times of Texas will go out of business, too.

As I and others have written on multiple occasions, the real crisis in journalism is at the community level. This week’s Bloomberg numbers are sobering, but it’s important to keep in mind what they say and what they don’t say.

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